Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds in Denmark

By Emily Fisher

Marika Jensen hosted my visit to this health promoting school in a neighbourhood outside Copenhagen in Denmark. She went though Aarhus University as a Master Student then started as a School Health Nurse. Eventually her role turned into full-time coordination of the Health Team at the school.

My visit began in the school’s eating space- in fact the visit was focused in and around this area as these rooms were the most unlike “typical schools.” The entire eating space was designed by the students in collaboration with the school officials. As can be seen, each table is clean and nicely set with colourful dishes: making this simple eating environment a friendly space. I think it sets the mood in a way and helps the students to see that this “healthy food” they will be served is friendly too! The rooms are decorated with the students’ own artwork: like their involvement in planning how the rooms should be laid out, they were also in charge of the design element.

We move on to the kitchen where a group of students are busily preparing the meal for the lunch crowd. Lunch begins soon and they are hard at work preparing. Marika explains to us that the older students take part in this activity- starting from 6th grade. Each week a group of 5 students has their turn to prepare lunch for that week together with one home economics teacher and the school’s two hired chefs. We can see each adult supervising the activity of the students as is necessary. One is helping a student fillet a fish while another is discussing the potato preparation. While this is happening, other students are preparing the salad bowls and readying the tables.

We watch as the first group of students enter the cafeteria. Some come into the kitchen first and shout hello or ask what’s for lunch before taking their seats. Marika always replies- she tells us that they have an “open-door” policy. The other students are encouraged to check out what is going on, especially the younger ones. She wants them to be familiar and comfortable with the kitchen and the process because soon they will be there. It’s also important for them to feel involved in the lunch process and know more about what they are putting into their bodies.

The students roll out the food to the first group of fellow students. These are younger students and each teacher at the table is responsible for serving the food to help them see good proportions. Marika explains that their method of having one large plate for each dish on each table is intentional. It’s important for the youth to see that just because they like fish sticks, they cannot take 6 of them; otherwise the other students won’t have any. Along with healthy eating habits, social development skills are being learned too!

What does all this cost? The budget allows for spending on food for 17DKK (2.3 Euros) per student per day- parents pay 180DKK a month per child to help with these costs. Other parents with financial issues speak with the school and Marika directly to work out some sort of reduced payment plan. Payment is made by the parents each month in cash. Because there is no credit system, the parents are forced to come in to the office to pay. Marika thinks this is good, however, because it means that she can speak with them directly and remain involved in their lives. Having a relationship with the parents is important to the child’s wellbeing and involvement in the school.

And the school leaders realize that simple lessons on cooking are not enough to influence behaviour either- healthy eating and behaviour is built into classroom lessons. The students can experience how having a healthy meal helps them focus better and have more energy. Marika tells us that some parents talk about how their children are now telling them how to make their meals healthier! Do they each eat a balanced meal every day? No, it is a process- while the food they are cooking is healthy for the students, some shy away from certain vegetables. She points out that we may have noticed some remaining broccoli in the colourful bowls on the tables. Should they only serve the students carrots because they know it’s a vegetable they will eat? She doesn’t think so- it is good for the youth to experience other healthy foods. And they may even discover something new that they like. In the beginning, when they were making brown bread instead of white bread, many students were concerned. But now they all bake and enjoy the brown, hearty (and healthy) bread!

What I was able to experience is something unique to schools and something I hope to see replicated in other systems. Holistically approaching a child’s education encourages growth in many aspects of life and better prepares them for the future. Using their everyday activities as places to begin healthy changes requires hard work and dedication but seems to produce magnificent results!

Published: February 2010

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