School canteens need healthy principals

12 August 2013

School canteens are flouting healthy eating guidelines and principals need to be held individually accountable for their school's Nutrition in Schools Policy according to a University of Sydney nutrition expert.

Dr Kieron Rooney, a senior lecturer in biochemistry and exercise physiology in the Faculty of Health Sciences, says current policies are failing our kids and no one is taking responsibility for the poor choices available in school canteens.

School canteens are regulated by the NSW Department of Education's Nutrition in Schools Policy implemented in schools across the state two years ago, says Dr Rooney.

The policy aims to promote and support healthy eating through the implementation of the Fresh Tastes @ School - NSW Healthy School Canteen Strategy (PDF, 1.57mb) which should be mandatory at all NSW government schools.

Victoria implemented a healthy eating campaign through the School Canteens and other Food Services (SCFS) Policy in 2006.

"For all their wordy titles and ambitious claims to be promoting the health of children, the policies present nothing more than a toothless tiger. Arguably, a tiger whose teeth have been rotted away by the consumption of excessive sugary treats that the policies directly seek to ban," states Dr Rooney.

Dr Rooney accessed the canteen menus of over 20 public schools across the Sydney metropolitan area. While there were clear examples of excellent school canteens there were other menus predominated by foods graded in the guidelines as "select carefully" and "occasional" foods and a dearth of "everyday" foods.

Also of concern were foods low in fat but high in sugar that appeared to be acceptable and, in some cases, actively encouraged.

"This is a result of outdated guidelines. The current guidelines for healthy schools would have been based around the pre-existing stance of the National Health and Medical Research Council almost a decade ago," says Dr Rooney.

The NHMRC guidelines for healthy eating were revised in January of this year. A big shift was the revised advice regarding foods and drinks containing added sugars. The revised guidelines now say to "limit" their intake.

According to Dr Rooney, while at first glance this may appear to be mere semantics, on closer inspection it shifts foods and drinks containing added sugar into the same category as foods high in fat and salt.

"If the canteen guidelines are to reflect the current NHMRC guidelines then the assessment of foods made available for sale in canteens should also be revised to include sugar as a category for exclusion just as fat and salt already are," states Dr Rooney.

"I am amazed that no one cares to check for compliance. The responsibility of ensuring the promotion of healthy eating in our schools falls on the intrinsic motivation of the school principal or the enthusiasm of the school community or the Parents & Citizens' Association."

This is concerning for a number of reasons states Dr Rooney.

"One of which is the inequity that arises between schools. There are some excellent examples of school communities that have come together to align their school canteens with the policy and poor examples of other schools that haven't. What does this say for the future of the children at the latter schools?"

"Research is indicating that eating habits developed during childhood persists into young adulthood. The self-regulatory approach to school canteens is encouraging the development of the next generation of junk food consumers as a consequence of weak policy," says Dr Rooney.

Contact: Victoria Hollick

Phone: 02 9351 2579

Email: 0e023b3a1b3923576b243a2408021118375c340f06304c743728427a0941