Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town, South Africa
Serving it up at Manenberg Primary!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The English Education System: Woof

Good afternoon from London, everyone! I hope you are staying warm. Even though temperatures are pretty chilly in London, it has been uncharacteristically sunny since I arrived. It hasn’t even rained since being here (fingers crossed for the rest of my time here!!)! Perhaps this is record-breaking? Or perhaps just climate change. Well, that turned down a dark path quickly…

Before talking about my school visit last week, I think it’s necessary to explain some key differences between the English and American schools systems, because they are quite different (by name). For the few weeks, I was utterly confused - public schools are private schools? What? You can be a junior at age 5? Hehe, I was pretty lost!

Here is a video that will help with understanding:

[Isn’t she clever? This video was really helpful … after watching it twice. Haha, these are puzzling differences!]

So, now that we have a basic understanding of schools in England, let’s add in another type of educational institution that was not mentioned: Academies.

The Academy: Further complicating the English education system
The academy is only found in England; Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales do not have academies. In fact, the United Kingdom’s school districts are pretty different on the whole.

The academy is an independent, state-funded school that is controlled by the central government (in contrast to a local authority, which has historically been more common). Academies are overseen by a charitable entity or private business, such as UBS. Academies first emerged in 2000 as a governmental attempt to revamp the worst-performing schools. It’s not clear what the logic is behind having a private business oversee the worst-performing schools. Perhaps it is based on the logic that the business mindset will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of a school. Or, perhaps it is similar to the charter school movement in America, which was founded on the idea of giving more autonomy and choice to educators and students.

A very important aspect of academies is that they can have different standards than traditional state schools. Or, more accurately, they are not obligated to follow the same standards. Oftentimes, academies do replicate the same standards as state schools - and the curricula mainly look the same. But as you will see with the academy I visited last week, the recent additions to nutrition guidelines do not apply to academies. Academies do not have the same restrictions and standards for school dinners. Does this mean that academies are serving their children french fries, donuts, and burgers all day long? You’ll soon see! ;)

[Without the obligation to follow the Department of Education’s nutritional guidelines, does this mean Jamie Oliver’s arch nemesis, the Turkey Twizzler, could appear in academies?!]

Academies grew in popularity, with a peak in 2010. At its peak, both failing and successful schools were being transformed into academies. Today, academies account for 62% of secondary schools and 15% of primary schools. Regardless of how successful academies are, it is significant to recognize how much money and resources were used to transform nearly 4,500 schools over a ten-year period. While a school’s transformation may not seem to cost much, the Department of Education gave schools £25,000 for transition costs. This was a massive shift in the educational system - but the question everyone wants to know is, do academies work?

The answer to this question has important implications for the future of England’s education system. The government, up until October (not trying to spoil anything), mandated that all state schools must be “academised” by 2022. Depending on how achievement results change, this requirement may or may not be voided.

The effectiveness of academies … it depends on who you ask.
Some people love academies, some don’t. Similar to American charter schools, some academies have greatly improved the educational outcomes of children who had attended failing schools. Some academies have shown lower levels of achievement (as compared to its achievement when it was governed by a local authority) and even corruption (yikes). On the whole, Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) has found that achievement results do not indicate a significant difference in educational achievement.

In October 2016, the Education Bill was revised to omit the conversion requirement. Though they still “encourage” schools to become academies, this message was taken as evidence that academies were not succeeding like the government had expected. Richard Watts, chairman of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said, there was “evidence that council-maintained schools perform more highly than academies and free schools in Ofsted inspection.”

Wait, Erin, aren’t you studying school dinners?
Yes, which is why I need to wrap this up! The rise of academies definitely matters in relation to my research project, so I want to make sure that the distinctions in the education system are understood first :) Ok, I am off to go on a walking tour to see London’s street art - see you all later!

[Street art from Camden, a borough of London]

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Futbol, fear, and ... papyrus?

Hey everyone!

People have always said that London is a bustling, busy city, and I have definitely adopted that mantra over the last few weeks. I was looking through the pictures I've taken over the last few weeks, and realized that there aren't that many of them ... whoops :)

I visited my first school (or should I say, academy - yes, a post on the British educational system is necessary) yesterday, which was a blast. I had my coffee in hand (funky unicorn mug and everything), so I was ready to go! Do I look like a teacher?

[Taken at 6:53 AM]

But before I make those posts, I wanted to write a post that has little to do with school dinners. This post will talk about Futbol, fear, and papyrus - yes, it's been a busy time to say the least. 

Futbol and Fear

Several of the questions I received while interviewing for the Keegan Fellowship had nothing to do with my research. And no, I am not referring to the, "Tell us about yourself" kind of questions :) Rather, the questions gauged my willingness to experience new things, as well as my curiosity/exploratory nature. I believe the selection committee was looking for someone who would enjoy putting themselves out there. I definitely was not the only applicant to exhibit this - but I can definitively say, I have faced a fear that I thought I would never overcome. Talk about putting myself out there!

Long story short, I had a serious soccer incident in 2009 that ended my soccer career, changed my life trajectory, and instilled in me a significant fear of contact sports. I was a pretty good soccer player, and was seriously considering playing the sport in college. After having knee surgery and physical therapy, I was never able to get back onto the field; whenever people would run at me (regardless of where this was, i.e. on a soccer field, in the school hallway), I instinctively recoiled. I had convinced myself that I would never try soccer again.

Oh ho ho. Last Wednesday, I played soccer for the first time in seven years. Another Vandy alum asked if I could join their intramural team, and my mind immediately screamed, "NO." But for reasons I don't understand, I could hear myself saying out loud, "Sure, I'd love to play." What just happened?! Talk about an out of body experience!

No, I was no longer a skilled player - I made some poor passes, I didn't score any goals. At least I didn't have any own goals! What I did have, though, was this ethereal high at the end of the game: I had faced my fear and played soccer. My knee actually did quite well, despite the cold weather and lack of soccer cleats. 

Though I will not be the next Mia Hamm, perhaps I'll play intramurals back in the US. But that's not the important thing to me. I just love that I can.


This will have to be a quick story because I've got to run! Another thing that I've never tried before is Toastmasters. Toastmasters is a non-profit that helps people become better public speakers and communicators, which I think everyone can benefit from. My Vandy friend took me to the meeting that she went to (at 7 am ... their chapter is called the Toastmasters Early Birds for a reason), and I figured I would sit in the audience and watch as people spoke eloquent speeches! 

Haha. Nope!

There is a section of Toastmasters where people are given random topics to build a 30-60 second impromptu speech off of. Half asleep from being so tired, I was surprised to hear my name called, followed by the word, "papyrus."

Haha, what?! 

Well, I gave a 47 second speech on papyrus, and won the award for the impromptu speeches! Wooo!

[I'm smiling like that to hide the bags under my eyes hehe]

Coming up soon is a post about my first visit to a UK school - get excited! Thanks for reading through this blogpost, I appreciate your support so much. 


Friday, November 25, 2016

The Raven Master ... and Beef Eaters? United Kingdom

Happy Thanksgiving, all! And I suppose, Happy Black Friday? Even though the UK doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, Black Friday has managed to infiltrate its calendar.

[My best friend's aunt lives in London, and we had a hearty Thanksgiving feast!]

I have been pleasantly overwhelmed by the largeness and beauty of London. It is a gorgeous city with seemingly endless traditions (Ever heard why there is a Raven Master - or Beef eaters - in the Tower of London?), historical gems, and amazing architecture.

[The Natural History Museum - filled with many fossils, geological specimens, and third grade classes.]

[Pretty regal Stock Exchange, eh?]

With Twinings tea in hand and a tissue box nearby (I am happily getting over a cold), I am diving into The UK’s, or more appropriately, England’s school dinners.

A short - yet long - history of England’s school lunch program

England has had the longest running school lunch program in Europe, becoming statutory law in the 1940s. However, school meals date back to 1879, where some primary schools in Manchester served free meals to poor children.  

The British school lunch program, like the United State’s program, did not emerge from the ethical need to feed children in poverty. While the American program served as an economic stimulus for farmers (check it out in my earlier post here), the British program was created to produce stronger soldiers. Generally, there were significant disparities in health and wellness in England in the 19th century; public infrastructure such as roads, clean water facilities, and access to nutritious foods was wholly inadequate. In 1901, Seebohm Rowntree's survey of working class families in York found that “almost half of the wage-earning population of the city could not afford enough food to keep them 'physically efficient.”'

[Hungry lil' ones in the UK; picture from The National ArchivesSchool Dinners]

As England suited up to fight in the 1899 Boer Wars, the military realized that one-third of all young men were too small or undernourished to serve. Yikes.

[Can you imagine this guy carrying a rifle?]

To solve this military-sized problem, the 1921 Education Act set up the frame for a  lunch program and set the eligibility standards for free meals. The government significantly limited the impact of this program, though. Spending limits were set to offset the costs of labor strikes that increased the cost of school lunches, so not all malnourished children received a meal. In 1936, 2.7 percent of school children got free meals.

World War II
While schools lunches only reached 2.7 percent of children in 1936, the Second World War catapulted the program into national importance. With the Boer Wars fiasco in the backdrop, school meals were viewed as fundamental to the health of England’s children, and by extension, future military. School meals became statutory law in the 1944 Education Act (prior to 1944, school meals were allowed but not required) and funding was increased. By 1945, one-third of the entire school population was fed (and 14 percent of meals were free).  

[In addition to "fortifying" their children, another reason for increased access is that women were entering the workforce. Since women were not home to cook, school lunches filled this gap while women filled factories.]

Entering the modern era of school lunches: The rollbacks to the school lunch programs
The school lunch program stayed largely the same until Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party came into power. Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1979, also elected on the premise that she would cut taxes and decrease government spending. What was the first program to be slashed? The school lunch program and the school milk subsidy, which had provided free milk to all children. Thatcher was labeled as “Thatcher Thatcher, Milk Snatcher!” for her steep cuts in public spending.

The biggest thing impact on the NSLP during the Thatcher administration was the Education Act of 1980, which withdrew the minimum nutrition requirement. This, coupled with hiring private tenders to provide the food, allowed competitive private companies swoop in and sell low-quality, fast food to children. Since there were no nutrition standards, the companies had no impetus to sell wholesome, quality foods.

I cannot explain how impactful this was. Even though there was food rationing in 1950 due to insufficient funding (Hello, WWII!), children in 1950 had healthier diets than children in the 1990s. School lunches were loaded with sugars, salt, and fat while stripping the food of fruits, vegetables, and nutrients necessary for child development.  

The nutritional deficiency of school lunches could not have come at a worse time, either! During the 1980s and 90s, technology (TV, computers) became incredibly mainstream, and children became more sedentary. Furthermore, the introduction of the microwave and freezer also led to less home-cooked meals - and more fast food.

Study after study in the 1990s and early 2000s found that children were not getting enough healthy foods in their diets. Obesity doubled from 1980 to 2000. That’s really bad.

Jamie Oliver to save the day!
Jamie Oliver … I think he should be knighted for his important efforts to fix school meals. As I mentioned in my earlier post, Jamie started calling for healthier school meals in the early 2000s. Though it took a TV show, rallying public support, gathering petitions, Jamie succeeded in prompting government action.

And without giving too much away on the contemporary status of the school lunch program (I will talk about that for the next few weeks), school lunches have vastly improved since the 1990s. But where are they now? Stay tuned, that’s coming soon!

[Every day, an artist comes out to create a sand "sculpture!"]

[The Christmas holiday season is underway in London!!]

Monday, November 21, 2016

A political post: What Trump could mean for the National School Lunch Program

I know, I heard your audible groan, “another post about the presidential election?” If you’re like me, I was incredibly invested in the presidential election - gobbling up political podcasts, watching the polls, watching the Hillary Shimmy on repeat. After seeing the results, I was extremely distressed and apathetic towards anything politics-related. However, channeling my inner-Elizabeth Warren, I am begrudgingly ready to move forward and give president-elect Trump a chance to advocate for the people.

Given the election news, I’ve decided to do a post on the National School Lunch Program and Trump.

“Trumped Up Trickle Down Economics” - Trump and the NSLP

Trump did not specifically reference the NSLP on the campaign trail, but several of his comments on other policies directly relate and should cause worry.

1. First, as a major proponent for deregulation, Trump has proposed rolling back safety regulations at the FDA. Trump specifically mentioned removing the FDA Food Police, which monitors food production, safety, quality, and transportation. Deregulating the FDA could greatly impact the food standards of the NSLP, specifically those achieved by the Michelle Obama administration. Lowering food standards opens cafeterias to more processed foods, soft drinks, and lower quality produce.

Donald Trump is a huge fan of fast food. Why? He believes it has the highest food safety standards.

2. Lowering taxes for the wealthy was one of the major selling points for the Trump campaign. Though Trump never said where he would make up the money lost from decreased tax revenues, there is a historical example of this same action that led to the gutting of the British School Lunch Program.

Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1979, also elected on the premise that she would cut taxes and decrease government spending (Her party, the Conservative Party, holds similar ideological premises as the Republican party does today). What was the first program to be slashed? The school lunch program and the school milk subsidy, which had provided free milk to all children. Thatcher was labeled as “Thatcher Thatcher, Milk Snatcher!” for her steep cuts in public spending. While in office, she also abolished the minimum nutrition standards (sound like someone I just mentioned above?), allowing competitive private companies swoop in and sell low-quality, fast food to children.

While this may not happen in Trump’s presidency, it isn’t impossible nor unlikely. Especially since this happened in the UK - the European country with the most similar disparities in wealth and levels of childhood obesity - my fingers are crossed this won’t happen in the United States.

3. A Republican-led government will likely result in many social services and social welfare programs being drawn back. This is no surprise, as the conservative ideology calls for smaller government. In 2017, Congress will review and amend the Child Nutrition Reauthorization, which obviously relates to the NSLP. Republicans have already highlighted parts of the NSLP they want to roll back: Smart Snacks, the ban on certain foods, etc. They have also proposed a three-state block grant pilot, which is a complicated term that refers to funding. Simply, the federal government will decrease its investments in the NSLP.

Just reelected as Speaker of the House, we'll see what Paul Ryan and the Republicans have in store for us.

So, is the NSLP at risk for cuts in funding, and possibly for lower nutrition standards? Yes. Am I worried? No. I have such confidence and faith in Michelle Obama’s skills in protecting her efforts that have positively impacted millions of children.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Starting off the UK: Jamie Oliver

I have been incredibly excited to go to the United Kingdom to look at school lunches. Why? Because they have seen the largest shifts in quality, care, and awareness over the last decade.

While he may not be the sole reason for the improvements to school meals, called "school dinners" the UK, Jamie Oliver has started a revolution in school canteens. To set the stage for the upcoming weeks, I wanted to start by posting two of Jamie Oliver's videos - check them out, they are inspiring, fun, and enlightening to watch:

Jamie Oliver's TED Talk

Ever heard of the Turkey Twizzler? Now you will have!

Syrian Refugee Crisis

G’Day everyone!

I hope this message finds you well. I am in Belgrade, Serbia, and am loving this city! It has character, I’m not sure how else to describe it. The public art and graffiti, the imperfect buildings and structures, the hardy food is simply wonderful.

[I’ve been shopping almost exclusively at one of the many farmer’s markets in Belgrade, Zeleni Venac. Here is a picture of a soup that I made from all locally-sourced produce. Nothing beats homemade chicken and rice soup!]

[Or even my breakfast this morning, which consisted of cabbage, apples, and eggplant!]

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was not intending to be in Serbia. And, unfortunately, there is no established Serbian school lunch program to look into. The school day excludes the lunch hour - children have school in the morning and go home to eat lunch, or have school in the afternoon (after the lunch hour). Thus, there is no school lunch program.

Despite not having a school lunch program, Belgrade has introduced me to something I haven’t encountered yet in my travels (which spans 13 countries); this is the first city that I have tangibly seen Syrian refugees waiting for relocation to other parts of Europe. When I stepped off of the train, I was astounded by the number of people waiting in parks and other public areas. Aid workers have told me that currently there are 1,200 Syrians in Belgrade who are waiting to be placed in a camp (either inside or outside of Serbia) or program. So, instead of posting about school lunch, I thought I would share a summary of the refugee crisis, and post a link if you’re willing to donate to the refugees currently in Serbia.

*Before I talk about the Syrian conflict, it is important to note that Syrians are not the only ethnic group fleeing persecution from their home countries. People from Afghanistan, Albania, Eritrea, Iraq, Kosovo, Nigeria, Pakistan, and other countries account for over a half million refugees currently in transport.

The Syrian Civil War and Serbia
I cannot do the history of the Syrian conflict justice, so please see BBC News’ history of the conflict. Please read that article.

The Syrian conflict has spanned over five years, and has a death toll of 300,000 to 500,000 people. The conflict has origins back in the Arab Spring, when people sought democracy (via demonstrations that were crushed by the government) and the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad.

Almost 5 million people have fled Syria, 6.5 million have been internally displaced inside Syria. Due to its close proximity to the Middle East, Serbia has faced the brunt of the refugees following the “Balkan route” out of Syria.

The Balkan route to the EU was less well-known than other routes, but quickly gained popularity; in 2012, 6,390 people crossed through this route, according to the EU frontier agency Frontex. In 2013, the number had risen to almost 20,000, and in 2014 over 43,000 were came this way. Although the route was effectively closed in March 2015 when the European Union and Turkey reached a deal to halt the flow of refugees to Europe, many people continue to make the treacherous journey, usually with the help of human smugglers.

The buildup of refugees in Serbia was exacerbated when Hungary closed its borders in September 2015 and passed a policy to detain and expel any refugee or migrant found within eight kilometres of the border without a legal process.

Serbia has been welcoming to refugees, with President Aleksander Vucic saying, ““Refugees are safe and welcome here. Some will stay, although we know they want to go to more developed countries. If they want to stay, we have no problem – these are good, hard-working people.” However, as hundreds of thousands continue to pour into the country, this sentiment may have soured.

Earlier in the year, one of the largest refugee centers in Belgrade was demolished to make way for a redevelopment project. Furthermore, the Serbian government issued a ban last week stating that non-profits are no longer able to distribute resources (food, clothing, etc) to refugees. This is an attempt to move the 1,200+ refugees in Belgrade outside of the city. The problem? There's nowhere to go.

If you would like to support the refugees specifically in Serbia, you can donate here:

Best, Erin

PS I'm a billionaire! Back in 1993, when the Serbian dinar (the Serbian currency) was incredibly volatile due to the Yugoslavian Wars, the biggest bill printed was for 500 billion dinar! It could be worth heaps in the morning, but nothing in the evening. But, hey, being a billionaire at age 22 isn't too bad.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Feeling heavy: A reminder of why school lunches exist

Hi everyone! I am writing my last post while in Croatia, and then it is off to Serbia! I’ll be making a pit stop in Plitvice Lakes, one of eight national parks in Croatia. Here is what it looks like below:

[So gorgeous!]

Amidst the beauty of Croatia, I have been growing increasingly uneasy while doing research on the US NSLP. Why? Read on to see why. This will be a short post, as I don’t want the main message to be diluted by multiple thoughts/threads.

The US National School Lunch Program: A Reminder of the Polarization of Wealth and Poverty
I came across a data set recently on America’s school lunch participation over the last 50 years, as well as the percentage of meals that are free/reduced price. This is what the data set looks like:

I’m a visual person, so I put this data into a graph.

The blue line represents total participation (millions) over time, the red line represents the total number of free/reduced price meals (millions) in the program over time. So, the blue shaded area - the area between the red and blue lines - represents the number of meals that are not subsidized by the government. This space - the number of meals that are being purchased at full price - is shrinking. The number of families who are able to afford lunch is decreasing. Financial stability is decreasing.

This is a graph of America’s poverty level throughout time. Poverty is rising, which correlates with the rise in the number of free/reduced price meals in the NSLP. It is important to note, however, that many families are above the poverty line but are still struggling to make ends meet. These families are not recognized in this graph, but their children likely receive free/reduced price meals at school.

My inner tension

Here is where I am feeling heavy. I have the invaluable opportunity to study these programs abroad - to see how the American program can be improved, to see how other countries’ programs relate. However, the improvement of the NSLP is inherently tied to the notion that its consumers are struggling financially. In order for me to do my research, I rely on hungry American children - children who don’t have access to nutritious food (or food at all). I want the NSLP to serve its students in the best way possible … but I would wish away the NSLP’s existence if that means all children have enough food at home.

Yes, I am proud of how the NSLP serves American children, and its nutritional quality is improving! But on days like these, my heart is burdened by the reality of my research.