Good food builds good kids

by Rose Carr / 02 April, 2011
With 21% of our children overweight, it's important to give them food at school that's healthy - and that they'll eat.

When the National-led government came into office it revoked the clause in the National Administration Guidelines that required only healthy foods be sold in schools. There was clearly a backlash against the previous government's "nanny state", but this seemed like change for change's sake and a backward step for those involved in nutrition. Teaching children about healthy eating in schools is undermined when most of their choices at the canteen are fat- and salt-laden foods.

Nutritionists often describe our food environment as obesogenic, as it promotes over-consumption of nutritionally poor and energy-dense foods and drinks. With 21% of our children overweight and a further 8% obese, the potential cost of this is huge. A study published in the New Zealand Medical Journal in 2007 reported an association between school canteen use and more frequent consumption of various high-sugar/high-fat foods. It found students using the canteen were less likely to eat some healthier foods, such as fruits and vegetables, than non-users. The authors also cited evidence that school food policies, promotion of healthy snacks, and limiting the availability of unhealthy foods can positively influence consumption.

We all want education to be the top priority for schools and no one expects parents and Boards of Trustees to be nutrition experts. However, a 2005 review by Quigley and Watts found a clear and consistent relationship between nutrition and long-term academic outcomes. The Children's Nutrition Survey in 2002 found one-third of students only ate food they had brought from home.

But with over half of students buying some or most of their food and drink from school canteens, it seems important for there to be some nutritional value in these purchases. That's why the Heart Foundation makes it simple and actively helps schools build a healthy environment. It has 18 people around the country running its "Healthy Heart Award for Schools" free programme (partially funded by the Ministry of Health) and provides schools with resources, guidance and support.

"We support schools to provide healthier, tastier options the students will love. We involve students, introduce changes slowly and use savvy marketing techniques to ensure the new menu is a success," says Jenny Stewart, National Programme Manager for Schools at the Heart Foundation. "The appeal for teachers is more teachable students. Anecdotally, they're telling us that when students are eating properly they're more settled and ready to learn."

Peter Day from the University of Canterbury examined the clustering of food retailers around schools in five urban regions. His study, recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found a high density of fast-food outlets and convenience stores within 800m of our schools. This was particularly true for secondary schools and for schools in more socially deprived areas. The National Heart Foundation believes environments are important, and they also work with food retailers near schools.

One objection often heard when trying to promote good eating options, is that healthier food doesn't sell. Not so, according to Kai Hong Tan, a nutritionist at the Heart Foundation who has for several years worked with food retailers to help them improve the range and availability of healthier foods. She approached 10 food outlets in low-decile areas in Auckland to participate in a two-year project to improve the food environment around schools.

Secondary school pupils were canvassed for ideas about what appealed to them and healthier options were introduced - such as ­pastry-less pies, sushi and wraps. "The retailers were keen to meet the market demand, but they didn't know what the schools and pupils wanted. We helped them develop healthier options, breaching that gap in knowledge," says Tan. Retailers reported increased sales and one of the outlets became a lunch supplier to five local schools.

Tan's work has shown healthier food can be more interesting; it doesn't have to be the expensive option; and it can be good business at the same time. Rather than pointing the finger at the "food police", maybe it's time for us to think in terms of being more adventurous with food. Better health could be a by-product.

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