With childhood obesity rising fast, educating kids about nutrition is vital. Yet canteens serving junk food and vending machines selling fizzy drinks are widespread in schools. Pupils and parents are urged to collect vouchers from snack food to help pay for school equipment. How can we make sure we don’t give schoolchildren a dangerously mixed message, asks Bernice Hurst.

It all comes down to money. Even allowing for nutritional guidelines and providing healthy food choices, parents, schools and their caterers are well aware that most children choose their food by taste alone and any suggestion that something is healthy is anathema to them. If school caterers want to reach profitability, they must sell what their customers want to buy. And as schools rely on their caterers’ profits to make a contribution to their often barren coffers, they, too, have a stake in meeting consumer demand.

There are many groups currently examining their role in reducing and preventing childhood obesity. Sue Kilbey, chair of the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA) says: “It’s going to take a long time. We all need to work together and need to realise that we have to start early. Today’s teenagers may already be lost. We need to start with five year olds and link the classroom with the dining room.”

Food and drink manufacturers and retailers have a significant impact in more complicated ways than may first be apparent. The contents of packed lunches, canteen meals and vending machines as well as food available from convenience and grocery stores near school premises are all influential. In addition, vouchers that are earned through purchases target young people and have an effect on what they choose to eat and drink.

Since schools have had their budgets devolved to them they have been wooed by food and drink suppliers, vending machine distributors and caterers offering to nourish staff and students at their own cost, returning a percentage of the profits to the schools to use as they see fit.

Schools have free rein over vending machines

“The vast majority of
vending machines in
schools are providing
inappropriate food.”

The Department for Education and Skills includes nutrition in the national curriculum, and introduced nutritional guidelines in April 2001 for meals, but offers no guidance about snacks available from vending machines. The presence of the machines, and their contents, are entirely a matter for the school to determine. And they, in turn, are often bound by what their contracted caterer chooses to put in them. Or tempted by the potential profits to be had by giving youngsters what they really really want. After all, if the school doesn’t provide, the kids will march straight off to the nearest shop, blowing their pocket money on sugar and/or fat regardless of the lessons they are being taught daily.

Promoting balanced diets, reducing consumption of less healthy foods to a more manageable percentage of the overall diet and restricting availability of high fat- or sugar-containing foods to children are hot topics. Alison Montgomery, Education Services Dietician for Sodexho, one of the UK’s largest schools caterers, agrees with Kilbey about the obstacles.

“Contrary to what is being taught in the classroom, Montgomery says, and what is served by caterers, the vast majority of vending machines in schools are providing inappropriate food. But children confronted by crowded, cramped canteens don’t want to spend their lunch breaks standing in line, they want to eat quickly and get out to enjoy their free time.”

“Too much sugar, too much fat, too many additives”

There are two diametrically opposing views on vending machines in school. Critics declaim their contents as containing too much sugar, too much fat and too many artificial and chemical additives. They point out that making such products available contradicts every lesson that children are being taught about eating a well balanced diet. While the products themselves cannot be banned entirely, there is no good to come of schools endorsing them by making them available on the premises, they maintain.

“If schools don’t sell what children want to buy, they will spend their money elsewhere.”

Those without objections point out that everyone is entitled to choice and must take responsibility for their own actions. None of the products, taken in reasonable quantity as part of a well balanced diet, is dangerous. Nor, they aver, are sugar and fat the only culprits. Sedentary lifestyles, including the lack of sport and playing fields in schools, have to be seen as part of the problem. Furthermore, they point out, if schools don’t sell what children want to buy, they will spend their money elsewhere and the schools (and consequently those same children) will lose out financially.

Sodexho’s seventh biennial school meals survey examined the eating and lifestyle habits of children in the UK aged five to 16 and found that they spend some £433m (US$679.4m) per year while travelling to and from school of a total £1.3bn dispensed by their parents. This means, says Sodexho, that pupils spend almost as much (£1.40 each per day) outside of school as they do on lunch in the school canteen (£1.56 each per day).

US states moved to ban fizzy drinks in schools

Much has been said about American school districts’ recent decisions to ban fizzy drinks from vending machines on their premises. Although decisions in British schools are taken on an individual basis, this is one that is not unknown. Chiltern Edge School in Oxfordshire substituted sparkling water for Coke some months ago at the behest of staff who felt that their students were getting too hyperactive from overdosing on additives. The concerns, in their case, were not related to weight or sugar content although the school, like that of Elizabeth Alqadhi of Information for School and College Governors (ISCG), subscribes to the government’s Healthy Schools Programme. Alqadhi points out that every decision at her school is made with the policy in mind, including distribution of free fruit at break time.

Arguments about vouchers are not entirely dissimilar. There is no question that schools need all the cash and support they can get. Rewarding consumers for shopping in certain supermarkets or for purchasing certain snacks and drinks, supporters say, is a way of giving something back to the community. Targeting children and their parents and encouraging consumption of high sugar, high fat products, critics say, is playing dirty. Calculating the cost of computers, sports equipment and other essentials in terms of how much needs to be spent to collect sufficient vouchers not infrequently shows that the same items could have cost less if purchased for hard cash.

Gradually, however, most people are accepting that teaching kids what to eat and making the right food available is a joint responsibility. Parents, teachers and caterers are all looking at holistic solutions including lessons in nutrition, cooking practice and better choices at meal times. Now is the time for manufacturers of food and drink to get on the bandwagon and make sure they put their “best” products into the vending machines available on school premises. There is an opportunity here to make sure that it doesn’t all come down to money.