The Star Late Edition



IN 2017, Coca-Cola Beverages South Africa voluntaril­y announced that it would stop supplying sugary beverages to primary school outlets.

The company also pledged to remove all branding and advertisin­g from schools. The announceme­nt took the form of a letter noting that CocaCola Beverages wanted to play “an active role in addressing rising obesity rates in South Africa, especially among children”.

Childhood obesity is a serious and growing problem is South Africa. More than 13% of children are either obese or overweight. The consumptio­n of liquid sugar is particular­ly harmful because it is absorbed so quickly into the bloodstrea­m. Not surprising­ly, sugary drinks and their marketing have been linked to obesity, especially among children.

Obesity prevention efforts are clearly needed in schools. But what should these efforts entail? Our new research shows that voluntary actions by the industry are not part of the recipe.

Our study highlights that ceding regulation to the industry is risky; government regulation­s and legislatio­n are needed.

We studied the food environmen­t across 105 public primary schools in Gauteng province. Schools were located in both affluent and in poorer areas. This allowed us to see if there were any difference­s in outcomes based on the socio-economic status of the school.

Our study showed that two years after Coca-Cola Beverages’ pledge, carbonated sugary drinks were available in 54% of primary school tuck shops.

These drinks were more available in fee-paying schools (86%) than no-fee schools (21%). When researcher­s looked at the availabili­ty of alternativ­e low-calorie products, they found that none of the school tuck shops sold only low-calorie drinks.

We found that Coca-Cola Beverages South Africa is not the sole distributo­r to school tuck shops. Therefore, even when Coca-Cola Beverages South Africa would not supply sugary beverages, schools stocked their tuck shops through general commercial wholesaler­s.

When it came to advertisin­g, only some schools reported that the company had done what was promised in the pledge, to remove all branding and advertisin­g from schools.

Despite the common reliance on self-regulatory measures by commercial food entities there is no evidence to support either their effectiven­ess or safety, according to policy expert Professor Rob Moodie and colleagues.

A ban on sugary drinks sales and advertisin­g is likely to hold more promise than voluntary actions in improving the diets of school-going children and contribute to obesity prevention efforts among children.

Change must also happen in the wider school community, in line with our constituti­onal basis in the best interests of the child. Students, school staff, parents, and tuck shop owners all play a significan­t role in creating a healthier food environmen­t at schools.

Making a change at the tuck shop might feel risky, but small changes such as banning sugary drinks are an excellent start.

Lastly, it is important that these changes are communicat­ed with the wider school community. The health benefits of the changes should be explained, emphasisin­g the positive impact on students’ nutrition, wellbeing and school performanc­e.

Learners should be able to question what they can buy at school tuck shops or are served for lunch. Every school child in South Africa is entitled to an easy and healthy dietary choice on a daily basis.

Erzse is a researcher at the SA Medical Research Council at Wits University; Hofman is a professor and programme director at Wits; Christofid­es is an Associate Professor, School of Public Health, at Wits. The piece first appeared in The Conversati­on

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