Mind and Body

Should schools ban potato chips, soda, and chocolate? Here's what the experts say.

by Madeleine Rojahn and Sasha Petrova
Akarat Thongsatid/Shutterstock

Obesity rates are on the rise in Australia and across the world. For years, public health and medical groups have called for schools to ban sales of junk foods as one way to stem the tide.

Selling fatty or sugary food and drinks has been banned in Western Australia’s public schools since 2007. A 2018 study found those children were eating healthier as a result of the ban. But it also found some regional schools were struggling to comply with it.

Some countries, including Canada and Chile, have banned junk food in schools. Should Australia do the same?

We asked five experts.

Four out of five experts said yes

Here are their detailed responses:

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In Australia, one in four children are overweight or obese, in part due to the fact one-third of our kids’ daily energy each day comes from junk food. We know what we eat is strongly influenced by the food around us. Recently, Google made healthier food options easier in its workplaces. The staff has since increased the amount of healthy food they eat and drink at work. A review of 91 studies globally shows the same effect in schools.

The more junk food available, the more kids eat it, so changing the foods available at schools supports kids to eat healthier. Kids spend a lot of time at school, so if providing them with attractive, affordable and nutritious options will give them one more rung on the ladder to health and well-being, why wouldn’t we do it?

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Western societies tend to focus on the nutritional aspects of food, categorizing it as simply “good” or “bad”.

But food is also tied to other things in life including culture, politics and socializing. Bananas may be nutritionally “healthy” but many people who pick them are subject to poor working conditions. A slice of sugary cake may not meet nutrition guidelines, but when considered in the context of baking, sharing, celebrating and the pleasure of eating it, the cake may enhance our well-being.

Banning junk food may demonize food in unhealthy ways. For instance, a child (and their parent) could be shamed by a teacher for bringing a cupcake to school. And it does nothing to disrupt the structural inequities that make it difficult for children to access the “right” food outside the school gates.

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Children are bombarded with advertising including on television, gaming devices, public transport, and billboards. The enormous range of food outlets and foods, along with the rise of delivery systems like Uber Eats, make unhealthy food seem appealing and easy to access. Children should be protected from this, at least in a school setting. Learning about good food choices in a controlled environment is one step towards reducing childhood obesity rates.

There are other settings for children to exercise free choice and learn to manage the overwhelming amount of unhealthy food around them. Everyone uses the canteen differently (some children will use it daily, others once a term), so the ban may not make much of a difference to each individual child. But if we are serious about health, policies to ban junk food in schools are relatively simple ways to promote it.

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Schools should be healthy places. They play an important role in developing children’s knowledge and habits relating to food. Schools also shape social norms and so provide an opportunity to improve children’s diets. That’s why the World Health Organisation calls on every school to be a health-promoting school.

In several countries, such as Canada and Chile, unhealthy foods cannot be sold at school or provided to children. In Australia, some states, such as New South Wales, have banned unhealthy foods from school canteens. Restrictions on unhealthy foods are achievable, although evidence shows schools need support in the transition process.

In Australia, most school-aged children bring their lunch from home. This makes junk food bans harder to enforce than in countries where schools provide lunch directly. A good place to start would be restricting kids from bringing key categories of unhealthy packaged food such as chips, soft drinks, and chocolate.

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Ample research tells us children’s food choices are influenced by their environment. Adding to this, only one in ten Australian children eat enough vegetables.

It's harmful to children to continue serving them addictive foods laden with sugars, refined carbs, unhealthy fats, and artificial food additives, giving them a potential life sentence of compromised health and well-being. Unhealthy diets can compromise learning and behavior, partly due to unstable blood sugar levels, with spiraling impacts on school performance. In the long-term, they have been linked to mental health problems such as an increased risk of anxiety and depression.

On the upside, research shows creating a positive food environment (engaging kids with gardening, cooking and eating healthy food together) can sway their eating behaviors in a healthy direction. It’s high time schools jump aboard the healthy canteen wagon and its multiple rewards.

This article was originally published on The Conversation by Madeleine Rojahn and Paul D Williams. Read the original article here.

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