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Danger in the school canteen

Fatty, fried, salty and sweet… Junk food may be a hit among school kids, but it is also making them unfit and in danger of short circuiting their lives:


Dr Ayesha Lokubalasuriya

School canteens have come in for a lot of flak after recent random inspections by public health officials revealed that the food in these places are a far cry from the guidelines spelt out by the School Canteen Policy drawn up by health officials. Random inspections by Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) both within the city of Colombo and outside have found canteen owners in some leading schools continuing to sell short-eats dripping with fat, oil and containing excessive salt and sugar. The inspectors also found that most students happily purchased these junk foods, while consigning the wholesome meals prepared for them at home, to the bin.

Selling fast food such as hamburgers, potato chips, cakes, pastries, chocolates, sweets and fizzy sugary drinks is high on the list of items the health officials have repeatedly said ‘NO’ to. They have warned that consumption of such foods on a regular basis could cause early diabetes, hypertension, cardiac problems and other serious non communicable diseases (NCDs) illnesses that could send children to an early grave.

So why do the canteen owners continue to sell these foods? Why do school authorities permit their sale? Most importantly, why has the Health Ministry been unable to take effective action against the sale of these unhealthy food in school canteens, despite repeated reminders by former Health Minister, President Maithripala Sirisena?

Consultant Community Physician in charge of School Health program, Family Health Bureau, Dr Ayesha Lokubalasuriya explains.

Excerpts...

Q: The Schools Canteen Policy has been in existence for some time. Could you tell us what it is? Is it an Act?

A: No. It's a circular drawn up by the Health Ministry and the Education Ministry.

Q: What are its objectives?

A: To ensure that students who patronise school canteens during school hours are served only health foods, and to limit the students’ accessibility to unhealthy foods in and around the school as well.

Q: Can it be enforced legally?

A. No. That is our problem. We are unable to implement it because it has still to be submitted to the Cabinet to be presented in Parliament.

Q: Does that mean canteen owners who violate it cannot be penalised?

A: Yes. . They cannot be penalised by either the Health Minister or the Education Minister.

Q: How have schools been informed about this Policy?

A: The Education Ministry sent out circulars to all school authorities advising them that when they issue tenders to those wanting to run these canteens, they should provide instructions on what food they should provide and what they should not.

Q: So have they adhered to this request?

A: Only for beverages mostly. Not food.

Q: Can your inspectors close down a school canteen that serves sub standard food?

A: Only if our inspectors have found evidence of sub standard food after regularly visiting the school concerned. If the food is found to have been expired, wrongly labelled or cooked in an unhealthy environment, the owners can be taken to courts under the normal Food Act.

Q: In general, what is wrong with the food served in school canteens at present?

A: Much of the food is not nutritious and is mostly unsuitable for growing bodies

Q: Are there exceptions?

A: Yes. The rural schools. Most of the schools which I have personally visited in remote areas serve very healthy food for their students. This is because their school population is small and their canteens are not run as a business. Instead they get the community to be involved, enlisting parents, teachers as well as volunteers. The fact that much of the food served is usually home grown without insecticides and pesticides, and consists of locally grown cereals and vegetables is another plus point.

These schools don't serve any fizzy drinks either and usually give their children a cup of milk tea instead.

Q: So that leaves us with the big schools. Why don’t the canteens in these schools comply with the Canteen Policy?

A. Because in the bigger schools, which have much more students, the canteens are run in a separate section of the school and need canteen owners to run them.

The owners have to pay 50 cents per child per day, which goes into their respective Schools Development Fund. To make up for this extra expense, canteen owners serve instant foods like pastries and cakes, which have a popular demand.

Q: What are the health impacts of consuming such foods on children?

A. Several. Consumption of such foods on a regular basis could cause early diabetes, hypertension, cardiac problems and other serious non communicable diseases (NCDs) that could send children to an early grave. A lot of these foods are deep fried using the same oil over and over again. Recycling the same oil especially in the case of vegetable oils, can result in more transfats and can expose children to the risk of getting cancer later in life, as they contain carcinogen.

Q: Has your Unit attempted to discuss the matter with the owners and asked them to change their menus to something healthier than junk foods?

A: As I said, our emphasis is on locally grown cereals. We are now in discussion with the canteen owners as to how they can serve healthy foods in a more attractive manner by changing the menus and varying them each day of the school week.

We are also discussing the matter with school principals while raising awareness among them of the importance of ensuring wholesome nutritious meals for their students.

Q: Do you have other issues with regard to the food they serve?

A. Yes. The biggest problem we face is that there is no regulation to identify healthy foods.

Although the Health Ministry is doing some work to help students to identify food that is healthy and unhealthy food for them by using a colour code, this is only for beverages so far. Not food.

Q: Please elaborate on the colour codes.

A: They indicate food with high calories, medium calories and low calories. Those with high calories will be marked with red, medium calories in yellow and low calories in green. It's just like the traffic lights symbol. Even young children can identify them.

Q: You have often mentioned that non communicable diseases (NCDs) are on the rise with children being vulnerable to getting them early in life. Can their lifestyles, especially relating to food habits during school hours, contribute to this trend?

A: In a study on School Health, which the Health Ministry did with the World Health Organisation in 2008, it was found that over forty percent of children came to school on an empty stomach missing their morning meal. This was why we started the morning meal program. If children don't get sufficient iron for example, their ability to concentrate of their studies will be reduced.

They will develop anaemia. It will lead to malnutrition, delayed menstruation, stunting and low weight babies when they become mothers. Also, their school performance will decline.

Q: So is there something missing in their school curriculum that can be filled to rectify this gap?

A: Actually yes. At present all these health issues I just mentioned are being taught to them in the Reproductive Health and Life Skills program. But priority is still given only to academic achievement because our education system only evaluates their performance on their academic achievements.

Rewards, like scholarships are given to academic achievers. But what school authorities and even parents must reailse is that to get these good grades, the key is good nutrition. Since students spend more than six hours in school and have most of their main meals from school canteens, it is important they get good nutritious meals served while in school. If we can give all four million school going children a nutritious meal in school instead of just one million as we now do that would be ideal but very costly.

The other alternative is for parents to cook some healthy meals for their children to take to school Home cooked food is a far better option when it comes to healthy nutritious food for growing bodies.

Q: What is your final target?

A. We have to main targets: 1) to have school canteens serving healthy food to students, and also limit the number of fast food restaurants in the vicinity of these schools.

Our second and most important target is for every school to be a Health Promoting School.

We are already on our way to achieving this goal. By 2017, we expect at least 60 percent of such schools to be set up all over the island.

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