An interesting article in the Vancouver Sun last Monday raises the question, “Are we winning the junk food war?” It cites the long battle to remove junk food vending machines from schools and outlines various programs implemented in BC schools that promote healthy eating and living. The author holds the view that food in schools is much better now than it used to be partly due to some of these initiatives.
- BC School Fruit & Vegetable Nutritional Program (BC SFVNP) – delivery of fresh fruit and vegetables to schools
- Project Chef – hands on cooking course
- Take a bite of BC – delivery of produce and culinary instruction in schools
- Promotion of school gardens and pocket markets
Aside from food there are also fitness initiatives:
I was pleasantly surprised to see just how many laudable health initiatives there are for our children. Healthy Schools BC follows the Comprehensive School Health (CSH) approach. CSH is an internationally recognized framework for supporting improvements in students’ educational outcomes while addressing school health in a planned, integrated and holistic way.
- recognizes that healthy young people learn better and achieve more;
- understands that schools can directly influence students’ health and behaviours;
- encourages healthy lifestyle choices, and promotes students’ health and well-being;
- incorporates health into all aspects of school and learning, acknowledging that health is
- more than just the absence of illness;
Having read these admirable initiatives and seeing just how many programs we have in place to help our children develop and maintain a healthy lifestyle, it makes me wonder if we shouldn’t go one step further and follow the lead of James S. Bell Middle School in Toronto which has banned students from bringing junk food to school.
Is it time to ban junk food from schools?
We know the statistics:
- almost a third of Canadians (31%) aged 5-17 are overweight or obese1
- there has been a 10-to-30 fold increase in American children with type 2 diabetes in the past 10 to 15 years it is believed Canadians will show a similar trend2
- we also know that children learn better on full stomachs and are better able to focus and concentrate when their blood sugar level is stable3
At first the idea to ban junk food from schools appeared highly controversial, as no parent likes to be told by the state how to raise/feed their children. However, it turns out, this initiative was parent-driven. Now that changes things a bit.
We all want the best for our children; however, somewhere between that thought and the practical delivery of feeding our kids, the outcome does not always reflect the intent.
This may be due to time, money, or the murky practice of “health labels” on what is clearly junk food. Some may simply not realize the deleterious effects of trans fats, excess sugar and sodium on their children’s health.
Many parents feed their kids exceptionally well; however, with the proliferation of “treat occasions” it can be difficult keeping junk food at bay. Between hotdog days, Halloween, Christmas, Valentines Day, Easter and end of school parties plus the latest trend of bringing sweets for every student in the class on your child’s birthday, a “treat”, defined as “an event or item that is out of the ordinary and gives great pleasure”, is no longer a treat. It is a part of their regular diet.
If the idea of banning or putting some regulations on junk food at school gains momentum, a few obstacles would need to be ironed out, in particular, defining what constitutes “junk food” and, secondly, policing the policy.
Some junk food is obvious: chocolate bars, candy, chips and pop. Other items are less obvious: chocolate covered granola bars, 100% fruit snacks (gummy), flavoured beverages, e.g. Vitamin Water. What about homemade cookies with low sugar, flax seeds, and quinoa flour? Yes, they do exist.
The Toronto school limits the policy to chocolate bars, candy and pop. There are exceptions for special occasions, like a Christmas party. They also take a soft approach to policing and simply request that the child take home any offending items.
While I’m not convinced a ban on junk food in schools will solve all our health problems, I do like the idea of forming some policy or guidelines as to what children should be eating at school. After all, from 9am-3pm, the kids will eat about 1/3rd of their daily diet for 52% of the year.
Ideally, both the students and the parents should be involved in developing and drafting any “junk food policy” around packed lunches. Getting the children and teens input would encourage them to be proactive in issues involving their own health and would likely improve compliance. Perhaps a ban is not needed if this was both a parent and child-driven policy.
It may be that taking a more advisory approach over an authoritarian ban would be more popular with parents and students alike. For example, using a traffic light system as general guidance and encouragement for healthy eating, yet without the policing.
Red light: Rarely Bring To School (very special occasion)
- chocolate bars
- store bought cookies
- doughnuts & packaged cake products
Amber light: Occasional Treats (once to twice a month)
- juice boxes
- chocolate chip or sugary granola bars
- fast food
- dessert puddings
Green light: Best Choices (bring daily)
- fruits & vegetables
- school-safe seed butters
- whole grains and whole grain bread products
- dairy products – cheese, cottage cheese, plain milk, low sugar yogurt
- protein – fish, chicken, ham, eggs, beef,
- healthy homemade muffins & breakfast bars
Having the students participate in what foods fall under what category would be integral to its success, as the students will end up policing the parents as they pack the lunch in the morning. I can just hear it, “No, Mum, I already had a juice box this month. Just water for me”.
The question is, will the rest of Canada follow the trailblazing parents of James S Bell Middle School and ban, limit or advise against junk food in the classroom? Will students munching on McDonalds take-out and Wagon Wheels become a relic of the past just like lighting a cigarette at the office or on a plane?
Whatever happens, it certainly got us talking.
Please post your thoughts, ideas and comments and keep the conversation going. Feel free to forward to others you think may be interested.
3. Mahoney ,Taylor, Kanarek, Samuel, Effect of breakfast composition on cognitive processes in elementary school children. Physiology & Behavior 85 (2005) 635 – 645 http://ase.tufts.edu/psychology/spacelab/pubs/MahoneyEtAl.pdf
Brindal E, Baird D, Slater A, Danthiir V, Wilson C, Bowen J, Noakes M.. The effect of beverages varying in glycaemic load on postprandial glucose responses, appetite and cognition in 10-12-year-old school children. J Nutr. 2013 Aug 28;110(3):529-37. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23244339