Dollars trump sense when it comes to schools' canteens

by Brett Henebery14 May 2015

With school canteens having freely offered junk food like chocolate fudge, cakes, lollies and soft drinks to students for years, it’s any wonder there is an obesity epidemic in Australia.

To help reverse this trend, the Government launched the NSW Healthy School Canteen Strategy in 2011, requiring all NSW government schools to provide a canteen menu that is healthy and nutritious.

However, without any meaningful deterrent in place, many schools still continue to sell cakes, soft drinks, pies, chips and lollies in defiance of the state-imposed guidelines, begging the question: what can be done?

Clare Knight, manager of school programs at the Healthy Kids Association, told The Educator that when it comes to schools enforcing a healthy canteen, the matter can be complex.

“The canteen is a source of stress in lots of schools due to all of the factors at play,” Knight said.

“These may include strong personalities, facilities, community feedback and staff skill sets, all of which may all influence why a canteen is serving unhealthy food – and this in turn makes changing the canteen a big challenge.”

In addition to this challenge, schools face the prospect of some leasees – who do not have a vested interest in the school but who are well aware of kids’ soft-spot for junk food – drawing up a more profitable canteen menu.

“Many schools don't persist with this hard work, or don't know how to tackle the issues at their school, so end up turning a blind eye to the canteen menu or lease out their canteen.”

Knight said that some schools might not even be aware of their obligations under state policies but said the best way to ensure the food they serve meets guidelines is to have it assessed by a professional with nutrition or dietetic credentials, such as one of the team at Healthy Kids.

The biggest motivator for schools to pay attention to this issue, Knight said, is the significant role that diet plays in student behaviour and learning.

“Research shows consumption of breakfast positively impacts concentration in children, and diet quality affects mental health outcomes,” Knight said.

“Eating a diet that doesn't follow these recommendations can have a negative impact on health and wellbeing.

“There is a need for leadership here – a champion within the education department who will raise the importance of food literacy as appropriate for schools to be involved in. Then we might see improvements.”