Cupcakes and sausage rolls, Why give them the choice?

“When schools are able to increase the availability of nutritious lunch and snack options, kids will show healthier eating habits, according to new research from Michigan State University”1

How do we develop a taste for sweet, processed, fatty and generally unhealthy foods?  Yes, they taste good, but if these were not an option would we even care?  Did we want fast food before it graced our western world with its presence?  How do those people in Okinawa2 live if we cannot live without our chocolates, salty chips and deep fried food?  How did the cavemen live long enough to propagate today’s life in a climate where they had to hunt and gather everything they ate?

I came across this article recently by Mara Tyler entitled ‘If schools offer healthy foods, kids will eat them, study finds’.  This seems like a fair assumption but why is this not already the case?  When I was at school more than 10 years ago there were very few healthy food options at the school canteen.  In America I know they offered things like Nachos with hot cheese and sloppy joes, there were no fresh fruit or vegetables on offer.  In Australia, similarly, packaged chips, cookies, sausage rolls, candy bars, hot chips and soft lollies were on offer.  There was very rarely an option for fresh fruit or vegetables, and what sane child would have the strength to order these anyway when the naughty foods are sitting there beckoning them?  Why are we giving them such a difficult choice?  I believe we should be practising good habits from an early age and be encouraging these habits to solidify a healthier future.  Teach children healthy habits and emulate these through their eating options.  You can still allow them to have a choice and pick what they like but offer only healthy foods and options at schools which will enhance their health and longevity.

Where is it that a child develops their eating habits?  I believe that there are a number of things that combine to create a Childs particular eating habits.  Inclinations would largely be formed when a child is young so taking into consideration what they were fed during infancy is important, but more importantly I think is what they saw their parents, friends, and other people around them eating throughout their childhood.  What they saw their parents eating with regards to different emotions, and how these foods satiated their parents at this time.  Thirdly, obviously, a Childs food habits would be largely impacted on what tastes good to them and on what is available to them throughout their growing years when they have some cash to spend.

In Australia, the National Health Schools Canteen Guidelines (NHSCG) was implemented in 2010 and rolled out across Australia attempting to decrease bad food options in school canteens.  These guidelines aim to provide “training to help canteen managers across Australia to make healthier food and drink choices for school canteens”3.  The National Guidelines were implemented due to the dramatic increase in overweight children in schools and the likelihood that this problem may extend into their adulthood therefore increasing incidence of chronic and preventable health conditions.  In the long term these poor eating habits have obvious detrimental effects but the policy also emphasis the impact of these poor eating habits directly on children’s performance in school and their poor academic achievements and behavioural issues3.

The guidelines label foods with green, amber or red according to their adherence to the policy and whether or not they should be on the canteen menu.  Food and drinks that are categorised as red are low in nutritional value and may contain excess kilojoules and/or saturated fat, salt or sugar; the guidelines suggest that these foods should not be provided in healthy school canteens.  On the opposite spectrum, green foods are the best choices for a school canteen menu as they contain a wide range of nutrients and are generally low in saturated fat, sugar and salt.  These suggestions are what we all have known for years, but unfortunately do not always practice.  It is detrimental to our health to consume soft drinks, large quantities of juice, pizzas, doughnuts, sausage rolls, and hamburgers.  Things high in sugar and salt are bad for us, but they taste so good.  We should be consuming more water, fresh fruit and vegetables, and these options should be emphasised in what is available.  Whilst this is not the most exciting option, there are alternatives which fit into the green category that would be more appropriate for consumption while a child is at school.  These include low fat milk drinks, raisin toast, sushi, muesli bars and sandwiches.

The guidelines definitely do not exclude all food that tastes good.  From my perspective i think that school canteens should only be offering food that fits in the green category and exclude completely those that are in the amber or red.  Fresh, local fruit is delicious, children should be lucky enough to know this! Only give the children good food options while at school and then at home they can be offered a treat if their parents see fit.  People survived before chocolate, fast food and processed foods were prevalent, why can’t we do the same now?

It has been suggested in some articles that canteens need these red category foods in order to make a profit but maybe the way these foods are sold has to be addressed.  Do we need canteens and canteen supervisors?  Are healthy food vending machines an option?  Obviously these would have to be monitored as to food shelf life but if they were being used the food would not go off.  Perhaps a change like this would encourage parents to provide more consistent lunch options for their children.  I understand that it’s hard to organise food for everyone every day, but if this will positively affect your child in the long term isn’t it worth it?  Providing healthy options will reduce their morbidity in the future, decreasing their risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancers, osteoporosis, atherosclerosis and obesity; it sounds worth it to me.

I think that if bad food choices are available at schools children are unquestionably going to sway towards making that choice.  Even if the bad choices are less prevalent on the food menu, if children know they are available they will order them.  Why make this choice available to them?   I think the most important thing is to prevent ill health through teaching good habits in eating and exercise; overall this will help a child to be happy and healthy and give them greater opportunities in their activities.