Healthy canteens

Recently, ASCA CEO David Edwards was interviewed on ABC Radio about healthy canteens generally, and specifically the ACT Government decision to ban certain drinks with sugar content. Keep reading for David's response to the role canteens play in healthy choices.

Schools and school canteens do play an important role in helping children make the right choices about what they eat and drink, but in the end the answer to childhood obesity lies with parents, education about diet, and increased activity.

ASCA believes in a staged approach in school canteens:

  • Primary – heavy regulation and restricted choice for children
  • Middle school – increased choice, but more focus on education
  • Senior school – full choice

Older children will increasingly make their choices independent from the canteen. If older children do not have access to a school canteen where they can make educated choices then they will increasingly buy from shops outside the school. Senior school students will have cash that they will use wherever they can buy the products they want. The worst outcome is for school canteens to close down because of lack of viability. Some parents rely on the school canteen to provide meals for their children.

ASCA is also a strong supporter of cashless and online ordering systems for school canteens:

  • They allow canteen staff to be more productive, thus giving them more time to prepare healthier food which is often more labour intensive for the staff
  • They provide the opportunity for parents to be made more accountable for the choices available to their children  - through computerised and card based systems holding data on allowable choices
  • Cashless canteens provide the opportunity for parents to provide canteen money on cards for their older children, and as the cards can only be used in the school canteen they can help limit purchases by children outside of the school.

State governments can help beverage companies to develop beverage ranges (smaller pack sizes, less sugar content, etc) that are more suitable for school markets by establishing national guidelines rather than state based guidelines. State governments designate beverages as green, amber and red, the latter not being suitable for school canteens. However each government has different criteria for assessing the beverages. This means that beverage companies have difficulty manufacturing school ranges where there is no consistency across states due to small market sizes.

Importantly governments should monitor the effectiveness of school canteen beverage regulation. The causes of childhood obesity are complex involving diet, the parental and home environment, and activity levels, so simplistic solutions must be managed carefully. Current statistics from beverage companies suggest that over the last 10 years there has been a significant decline in the consumption of sugary beverages purchased from school canteens, and that the average sugar content of the beverages has also declined. However, other statistics show that obesity levels in children are continuing to rise. It is essential that well-meaning regulation is monitored to ensure it is not having unintended consequences.