CANTEENS: PROMOTING HEALTHY NUTRITION
While guidelines for food provision in school canteens have been established across the nation, more needs to be done to enforce its implementation for the health and wellbeing of Australian children.
PROMOTING healthy nutrition through schools is an important factor in the fight against obesity in Australian children. While some jurisdictions have checks and balances in place, more needs to be done to ensure school canteens are providing healthier options.
A poor-quality diet is seen as one of the biggest detriments to a person’s health, and school canteens are at the front line of children’s’ day-to-day food consumption.
Over the past few decades, the consumption of energy-dense, nutrient poor foods and beverages has increased, while the intake of healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables has declined.
According to Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2011-2012 National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey, only 6.8 per cent and 54 per cent of the population met the recommendations for its intake of vegetables and fruits respectively.
As a result of these poor dietary habits, obesity in Australia grew between 2 and 3 per cent according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); higher than that of comparable OECD countries such as Canada, England and the US.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), one in four Australian children and 63 per cent of adults are overweight or obese.
Teachers can play a vital role in influencing children’s eating habits, as they are important role models in a child’s development.
WA School Canteen Association (WASCA) executive officer Megan Neeson said there were a number of ways teachers can embrace the HDF policy and educate children about healthy eating.
“Class parties where children bring a broad range of fruit to share and are challenged to bring unusual options; cooking activities using recipes with ‘green’ products; or link with the canteen for specific events such as ‘walk/ ride to school day’, multicultural days and waste-wise initiatives,” she said.
Since children spend a large part of their active hours in school, school canteens are positioned as a front line food source and play a pivotal role in a child’s nutritional intake.
A healthy school environment can encourage early development of healthy eating behaviours, and an important initiative that has received attention over the past decade is the provision of nutritional guidelines for school canteens.
The Federal government’s National Healthy School Canteen Guidelines (NHSCG) have been available since 2010; however they are not mandatory and not all States and Territories have adopted these guidelines.
A comprehensive review by the George Institute for Global Health at the University of Sydney identified the discrepancies between guidelines for canteens in different jurisdictions across Australia.
According to the review, while canteen nutrition guidelines across different jurisdictions have commonalities as set out in the prior sections, across Australia there are differences in their design, support programs, some colour coding of food and drinks, and evaluations.
“ACCORDING TO THE AUSTRALIAN INSTITUTE OF HEALTH AND WELFARE, ONE IN FOUR AUSTRALIAN CHILDREN AND 63 PER CENT OF ADULTS ARE OVERWEIGHT OR OBESE.” TRAFFIC LIGHT SYSTEM
The colour coding of foods and drinks refers to the Department of Education Healthy Food and Drink (HFD) policy’s ‘traffic light system’, and is based on the Government’s Australian Dietary Guidelines and Guide to Healthy Eating.
This means that core foods from the five food groups (breads and cereals, fruit, vegetables, lean meat and milk and alternatives) must be available in canteens, while other food and drinks are either restricted or unavailable.
“In most States and Territories, canteen guidelines do not specifically define the proportion of green and amber products that should be offered – instead, they use descriptions such as green products should ‘fill’ or ‘dominate’ school menus, while amber products should ‘not dominate’ or ‘be selected carefully’,” the review stated.
‘Green’ products include fruit, vegetables and cereals, and meals such as lean meat hamburgers with salads, vegetable pastas and a variety of healthy sandwiches and rolls.
‘Amber’ products are to be selected carefully and are those that provide some nutritional value; however over-consumption could contribute to excess energy. These include reduced fat pastries, fruit muffins,
“SINCE CHILDREN SPEND A LARGE PART OF THEIR ACTIVE HOURS IN SCHOOL, SCHOOL CANTEENS ARE POSITIONED AS A FRONT LINE FOOD SOURCE AND PLAY A PIVOTAL ROLE IN A CHILD’S NUTRITIONAL INTAKE.”
potato portions, pizza and chicken.
‘Red’ products are those with little nutritional value that are often high in energy, sugar, saturated fat and salt, and include deep fried foods, sweet sandwich fillings, confectionary, soft drinks and sweetened fruit juices.
The review found that only Western Australia had defined the proportion of green
(60 per cent) and amber (40 per cent) products that should be offered in school canteens.
The ACT, NSW, QLD, Victoria and South Australia guidelines all allowed red items to be provided twice per term.
Ms Neeson said the traffic light system was well regarded in WA schools.
“It promotes the consumption of food and drinks which are good sources of nutrients. ‘Green’ foods mean so much more that spinach, apples, broccoli and brussel sprouts,” Ms Neeson said.
“Based on the menu assessments conducted by WASCA we know that on average canteen menus contain 72 per cent green choices – this exceeds the minimum requirement of 60 per cent.
“Some schools are even in the 90’s and a couple offer 100 per cent green choices.”
In WA, a series of surveys and focus groups were held with parents, teachers, principals and canteen managers were conducted following the implementation of the federal HFD policy.
“It was found that parents, teachers and principals all had positive views towards the policy; felt the policy provided opportunities to link nutrition education by improving the healthiness of the foods and drinks available at the school canteen; and WA canteen managers found implementing the HFD policy a relatively smooth process.”
25 per cent also sold banned drinks, and only 11 per cent had menus with no banned items.
The George Institute review stated that while the NSW Government’s ‘Fresh Tastes @ School’ mandates canteen nutrition guidelines, adherence was generally poor.
A study of primary school canteens in the Hunter-new England region of NSW found that from 170 menus accessed online or provided by canteen managers between 2012 and 2013, green products made up about 40 per cent of school menus, while red products averaged 8 per cent.
It also found that larger schools and those in higher socio-economic areas were more likely to have healthier menus.
Other surveys found that States and Territories without monitoring or accreditation programs generally had less than 50 per cent ‘green products’ available, even though all their guidelines suggested that green products be the major option available.
All jurisdictions provide material and training support to schools, parents and canteen staff to implement nutrition guidelines, however currently only WA and Tasmania have accreditation programs for school canteens.
Schools that participate in these programs must meet formal benchmarks to achieve different grades of accreditation.
In WA, the STARCAP2 program awards canteens ‘star ratings’ based on certain sales targets of green products.
In 2016, reported sales of green foods from schools involved in the program were between 83 and 99 per cent.
Although participation in the program remained low (less than 2 per cent of eligible schools), a recent review of the program revealed canteen supervisors found satisfaction in educating students, parents and staff about healthy eating and knowing that the canteen is producing a healthy menu for students.
Tasmania’s Canteen Accreditation Program
encompasses four areas of canteen management: food service policy, food safety, foods available at school, and the ‘whole school’ approach – marketing activities which spread the healthy food message to the broader school community. Tasmanian School Canteen Association (TSCA) executive officer Julie Dunbabin said accreditation comes at gold, silver and bronze level standards according to how schools meet specific criteria.
“In total, we 115 schools that are involved with the TSCA,” Ms Dunbabin said.
“50 are accredited, and have therefore completed the four areas of canteen management, and of this 50, 31 are at Gold level; 17 at Silver level; and two at Bronze level.”
“There are 65 other schools that are positioned within the four areas but haven’t quite completed the program.”
The George Institute review concluded that other States and Territories should consider improving their evaluation and monitoring frameworks to ensure ongoing compliance and put emphasis on utilising objective audits of canteen menus.
All images: WASCA.
The traffic light system is used in every State and Territory.
More must be done to effectively enforce healthier options in Australian school canteens.