VOICES OF THE COLLEGE – The Cafeteria Conundrum: 8 Ways to Encourage Healthy Eating in Our Schools

Schools are tasked with a difficult and sometimes controversial responsibility: promoting healthy eating. Indeed, the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development’s recent evaluation regarding compliance with its nutritional policy gave our schools low marks in a number of areas. This is not surprising as there is a great deal of inertia to overcome.

As far back as 1980 the New Brunswick Federation of Home and School Associations lamented “the dangers of junk foods,” and urged principals to take action. Dietitians charged with the current audit have raised serious concerns about the kinds of foods in schools, the use of food as a reward, and contracts with fast-food chains. History shows that initiatives aimed at improving in-school nutrition require firm government support to ensure that they are wide-ranging, effective, and sustainable.

The current provincial Policy 711 is a step in the right direction but it needs to be enforced, and some of its provisions need to be re-evaluated. Despite the policy, loopholes still allow the serving of unhealthy foods to children. Last November two local physicians raised concerns about the selling of Slush Puppies in school cafeterias: technically permitted under the guidelines but containing 29 grams, or seven teaspoons, of sugar! The policy does not apply to the fundraising activities of support groups. A number of schools also now offer “hot lunches” that inadvertently encourage students to patronize fast-food franchises. Such practices may not contravene Policy 711 but they conventionalize the consumption of fast-food as part of students’ regular routine, and thus contradict the healthy eating messages conveyed elsewhere in the policy and in school curricula.

The provision of healthy foods is a difficult task for departments of education. Tightening food regulations presents a challenge because cafeterias are expected to break even financially. Healthy eating initiatives and the essential life-long lessons they convey are effectively hindered from the get-go. Historically, cafeterias have relied on junk food sales to subsidize healthier options. The fact that many children bring lunch from home also means that cafeteria food tends to be supplemental, and thus less healthy, e.g. potato wedges, cookies, dessert. In some cases attempts to create healthier menus have led to cafeteria closures as revenues decline.

Still, the effort to improve healthy eating is needed. Dr. David Kessler, the former head of the US Food and Drug Administration, notes that there is increasing evidence that “foods high in sugar, fat and salt are altering the biological circuitry of our brains” and thus encouraging overeating and obesity. In 2007 a House of Commons committee reported that Canada’s rate of childhood obesity was one of the worst in the developing world. New Brunswick currently vies with several other Atlantic provinces to lead the Canadian statistics for obesity and inactivity in children and adults.

If we want to see significant changes in the health of our population, and in the messages children are exposed to, we need to make significant changes. Here’s what we recommend:

  1. Return drinking fountains to all public places, including schools, and encourage their use.
  2. Stop marketing fast food to children (especially in schools).
  3. Recognize that school food programs should not have the responsibility to break-even or to make money: they’re an investment in children’s health now and into the future.
  4. Don’t treat cafeterias as ancillary to schooling. The lessons learned there are as important as those offered in the classroom.
  5. Don’t use food as a reward, unless it is fresh fruit and vegetables.
  6. Bring back home economics and include food preparation and healthy eating in the curriculum from kindergarten onwards.
  7. Task and empower dietitians to enforce Policy 711 consistently across the province: Policy 711 must be a political and school priority.
  8. Keep it simple: stick with whole foods and plant-based diets.

Schools have a moral imperative to be role models for the entire community. They need to promote healthy eating by serving healthy food and educating children (and families by extension) about healthy eating and active living.

Dr. Catherine Gidney, Adjunct Research Professor, History, St. Thomas University, and Member, Royal Society of Canada’s New College of Scholars, Artists
Dr. Gabriela Tymowski-Gionet, Associate Professor, Faculty of Kinesiology, UNB Fredericton

This article was originally published in the Fredericton Daily Gleaner, 20 March 2017.

Voices of the College” is a series of written interventions from Members of the College of New Scholars. The articles provide timely looks at matters of importance to Canadians, expressed by the emerging generation of Canada’s academic leadership. Opinions presented are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the views of the College of New Scholars nor the Royal Society of Canada.

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