Work is underway to not only teach the school children of Gauteng the basics of balanced and healthy eating, but to also train them to share the information with others.
Dr Mojisola Kupolati is a nutritionist from the University of Pretoria who has developed a nutrition manual for Gauteng schools to be used by teachers and children.
The idea behind the project is to teach children healthy eating habits and in turn have them pass the message on to their families and communities.
In 2012 Kupolati investigated the teaching of nutrition in primary schools and how it impacted on the lives of the children both in the present and in the future, as well as how the knowledge impacted on the greater school community.
A three-phase nutrition education programme for teachers was designed and implemented in two schools selected for treatment and control. The study was carried out at Rethabiseng and Sihluziwe primary schools in Bronkhorstspruit.
“Firstly, we carried out a needs assessment to investigate the teaching of nutrition in the schools, the impact of the teaching of nutrition on learners’ nutrition behaviours as perceived by teachers and also the nutrition knowledge, attitudes and dietary practices of the learners and the teachers,” she said.
“Secondly, by using the information obtained in the needs assessment, and theories that are known to enhance desirable behaviour change were developed into a set of nutrition education materials,” she said.
“The materials were based on the existing curriculum of the Department of Basic Education in terms of content and allotted periods.”
The findings of Kupolati’s research have been presented to the Department of Basic Education on three occasions,“The Department’s response was positive. However, we are still engaged in discussions with them regarding the possibility of using the materials for teaching nutrition at Gauteng schools,” she said.
Explaining the importance of nutrition education for primary school children, she said healthy eating for children was foundational and necessary to help them develop and maintain a sound mind and cope with academic demands.
“Good nutrition helps in mental development leading to good school performance,” she said, adding that good school performance relates to higher earning power, productivity and ability to contribute to national development later in life.
“Conversely, undernutrition, for example- iron deficiency has been shown to reduce cognitive performance in learners,” said Kupolati.
Research findings regarding food intake among school children in South Africa reveal a high intake of foods high in refined carbohydrates, simple sugars, salt, and fat and low consumption of vegetables and fruit.
“If these eating habits persist with our children, the future generation may be at even greater risk of NCDs such as heart diseases and obesity than we are seeing now,” she said.