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Lunchtime lunacy: How the system is failing our kids

Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer

Most parents who send their children to school with a packed lunch are familiar with the perplexing discovery at the end of the day of that same lunch, wilted and a little nibbled around, at the bottom of the knapsack.

When my son was in Grade 1, he stopped eating his lunch entirely, and not because he was sick of my infinitely creative variations on bread, cheese and carrots, but because he, a mild-mannered child, hated the lunchroom. It was too loud. He asked me to take him home for lunch. Unable to do so, I packed him a side serving of earplugs.

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Lunch is important. I would consider it a cornerstone of well-being, a term educators are bandying about a lot these days, as levels of physical activity continue to plummet and self-reported psychological distress continue to rise among students.

In its just-released Engagement Paper on Well-Being in Schools, the Ministry of Education calls "positive childhood experiences, physical and emotional safety, and the support of caring adults" essential to kids' ability to learn.

Related: Report cards are failing parents and their kids

Related: Banning cartwheels: What's the point of recess with no fun?

All that seems as obvious as the importance of a square meal, fresh air and runaround time – which is what the lunch hour is all about. Or should be. Having joined the roster of parent volunteers to help serve hot lunch at our school, I experienced the lunchroom firsthand. Over 100 kids ages five through seven sit at tables in a windowless room in the basement, as a lone lunchroom supervisor trawls the rows. Loud doesn't begin to describe it.

Every now and again, in a futile attempt to assert control, the supervisor blows her whistle or flicks the fluorescent overhead lights, eliciting a chorus of shrieks. Time-outs are issued liberally, with kids who refuse to comply to arbitrary rules (no talking at this table, both feet on the floor, no getting water from the fountain) being directed to a bench at the wall, where they remain for the recess that follows.

When the kids are herded onto the schoolyard, the lunchroom supervisors throw on orange vests and continue their job – defined on the Toronto District School Board website as "to ensure the safety and security of students during the lunch period."

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The position of lunchroom supervisor, necessitated by teachers' union-enforced refusal to work through the lunch hour, is nobody's dream job. The 1.25-hour workday, paid minimum wage to begin, involves mainly yelling. But the application process is a breeze – an online form followed by a standardized three-question interview with a school principal – and, for some, especially new Canadians, it's a foot in the employment door.

Lunchroom supervisors can be dispatched to any school in the board, meaning that they often don't know the kids they're dealing with, or where to find paper towels to mop up spilt soup (or worse). There's also the odd mishap, like when my son slipped and landed chin-first on the table, losing a tooth. The supervisor sent him, accompanied by another child, to the bathroom where they were later found struggling to staunch the copious flow of blood.

Some would say kids need to suck it up; learn to eat when they're hungry and shut up when they're told. But it's more complicated than that. Recalling those Malthusian overcrowding experiments conducted on rats – in which they resort to cannibalism, sexual deviation and starvation – such lunchrooms are not conducive to eating, let alone well-being.

Moreover, lunchroom supervisors are being set an impossible task. The TDSB mandates a ratio of one lunchroom supervisor to 99 elementary kids and it diminishes from there (two supervisors for 224 children, three for 449, up to seven for 1,200 or more).

On the playground, supervisors do little other than bark orders, enforcing bans on everything from cartwheels to sticks to tag; how else are they to "ensure safety" in a job that requires no training in first aid or CPR?

The Ontario Ministry of Health is currently inviting public input on the question of how best to foster student well-being. I would start by taking a little insanity out of the lunch hour.

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