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For the past four years the government has been maintaining that what kids eat in school is none of its business. One of its first acts, on becoming government five years ago, was to throw out the school food guidelines that had been introduced only a year earlier, which stipulated that only healthy food should be sold in schools.
The Government didn’t bother to get any advice from schools, or the Ministries of Health or Education, before it scrapped the school food guidelines. The Government’s decision to scrap the healthy school food guidelines flew in the face of a huge body of evidence that what children eat and drink in school affects their ability to learn, as well as their health and wellbeing. Educationalists have been pointing out for years that if kids are hungry, malnourished, or hyped up on sugar, they won’t be able to concentrate in class, and will be almost impossible to teach.
Researchers have also found that what kids eat and drink affects their brain development and their IQ, which is a major determinant of their academic achievement.
But it’s not just what kids eat for breakfast that affects their learning and behaviour.
If kids skip lunch, or are hyped up on sugar and caffeine after a lunch of Coke, cream buns, candy and other junk food, they will struggle to concentrate in class, and will be difficult to teach. Children go to school to learn, so anything that affects their ability to concentrate in class is important. And that’s why governments around the world have taken steps to improve the quality of food on offer in schools.
There are other reasons why most countries have introduced healthy eating policies in schools. Selling high sugar, high salt junk food in schools encourages unhealthy eating and contributes to obesity, type 2 diabetes and dental decay. The evidence is overwhelming that poor nutrition and health undermines educational achievement. So now that the Government has finally admitted that food is an important factor in children’s ability to learn in school, perhaps it can also admit that it was wrong to throw out the healthy food guidelines, and reinstate them in schools.
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With the launch on 1 March 2011 of the Commonwealth Department of Health’s National Healthy School Canteen Guidelines, canteens all over Australia can now benefit from the first-ever nationally consistent “traffic light” classification system for food and drinks served in schools. The program’s objective is to develop a healthy food and drink culture throughout ACT schools at primary, secondary and college levels.
To fulfil the program’s requirements, the ACT Health Promotion branch is working with the ACT Government Education and Training Directorate and Nutrition Australia ACT. As part of its training, Nutrition Australia has already conducted the first of several hour-long introductory sessions to the new guidelines, held at the ACT School Canteen Association training day on 19 March and attended by 17 ACT canteen managers. Complementing these sessions are small group hands-on training and cooking sessions, the first three of which are scheduled for 16 and 17 August and 13 September.
Nutrition Australia will also be providing nutritionists who will conduct individual menu reviews, with follow-up reports to help schools modify their menus to ones which better fit the new guidelines. It is also providing fortnightly “My Canteen” newsletters containing menu ideas, supplier contacts and business sustainability suggestions, backed up by telephone support from qualified nutritionists and annual follow-up menu reviews. Lyn says that as part of Nutrition Australia’s research for the program, visits were made to around 20 school canteens in the ACT to gain insights into their needs. Lyn explains that while the ‘traffic light’ style of canteen food categorising has been use for some time in various Australian states, it’s new for the ACT. Lyn says a key role of Nutrition Australia will be in menu planning – “assessing existing canteen menus against the guidelines and using their criteria to rate the menu. Nutrition Australia will also be heavily involved in recipe development for those schools which make meals from scratch, and will provide ongoing assistance so canteen managers can phone up for advice.
It simply announced that it didn’t matter what kids ate at school, and that it was not up to schools or the Government to encourage kids to eat healthily. If they are well fed and nourished, on the other hand, they will be better able to concentrate and learn.
Most have introduced school food guidelines, similar to the ones our government threw out, and many offer a hot, fully cooked meal every lunch time.
Children spend around six hours a day, five days a week in schools, for around 13 years of their lives, and around 60 per cent of children buy food from school.


Already a third of New Zealand children are obese or overweight, and poor diet is the leading cause of ill-health in New Zealand. So if children are going to make the most of their educational opportunities, they need to be eating healthy food.
This is an initiative of the ACT Government Health Directorate’s Health Promotion Branch and is funded through the ACT Healthy Kids Healthy Future budget initiative and the National Partnership Agreement on Preventive Health. Its first phase, scheduled for 2011 and 2012, is the implementation of the National Healthy School Canteen Guidelines – following which, the program will focus on developing healthy food policies on conjunction with such school activities as fundraising, sports days, event catering, classroom rewards, vending machines and more. Nutrition Australia will be working with canteen managers to ensure the guidelines are understood, with all support being provided at no cost to the school canteens.
One of the things we want to get across the whole community is a consistent nutrition message. A Sparc report found that schools that provided only healthy food have better learning and better behaviour, and even better school attendance.
So schools are a hugely influential environment, and have a significant influence on children’s eating habits and the way they think about food. Why would we encourage children in school to eat unhealthy food and develop poor eating habits? We want to make sure the local community, the P&C and the parents are all behind the program. Change is often difficult, so one of the things we need to do is ensure the viability of the canteen is recognised and that the new guidelines don’t add any financial cost.



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