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Junking our kids' futures

After a long campaign by the Green party to improve the quality of food sold in school canteens, the previous government agreed to introduce nutritional guidelines for school food, which stipulated that schools should only sell healthy food.

The new school food guidelines were working well, by all accounts, and schools were slowly improving the quality of food that was sold in school canteens. Most schools had accepted that they had a responsibility to try to encourage healthy, rather than unhealthy, eating, amongst children in their care.

And once the guidelines became mandatory, schools that had been dragging their feet on the issue of school food, had begun to take positive steps to improve the quality of food in school canteens.

But then, out of the blue, and without any evidence or justification, the Minister of Education, Anne Tolley, threw out the school food guidelines earlier this year, along with the requirement to sell healthy food in schools.

Amazingly, Official Information papers reveal that she did this without first consulting with school principals, or the Ministry of Health, which had spent four years and $4.5 million developing the guidelines and resources to support schools to implement the guidelines.

This means it's now open slather in school tuck shops, and schools are free to sell as much junk food as they like to school children-even if it will contribute to rotting teeth, type 2 diabetes, poor behaviour, poor learning and obesity amongst our children.

There's a lot at stake here. Poor nutrition is the leading cause of death and disease in New Zealand. Already a third of our children are overweight or obese, and we have skyrocketing rates of dental disease and type 2 diabetes amongst our children. We are in the midst of an obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemic.

Approximately 50% of the nation's children buy lunches at school, so what children eat at school has a real impact on their overall diet. Selling unhealthy food at schools also normalises it, and sends a message to children that eating a staple diet of unhealthy junk food is ok.

That's why most people agree it's vital we take steps to encourage healthy eating amongst children, and to improve the quality of food on offer in schools.

But the government's removal of the school food guidelines has given schools the green light to revert to selling a staple diet of unhealthy junk foods once again. A recent Green party survey of school food found that 82% of schools are selling donuts, sausage rolls, pies and hot dogs as their staple fare.

This is not surprising when you consider that most school canteens are run commercially for profit, and it's cheaper and easier to heat a pie in a microwave than it is to prepare a healthy sandwich or salad.

But most parents wouldn't feed their children a constant diet of sausage rolls, doughnuts and chips. So why do we allow our schools to sell this sort of food on a daily basis?

It's not only children's health that is at risk as a result of the Minister's decision -it's their educational achievement as well.

International research shows that children who eat healthily are better able to concentrate and learn, and are better behaved than those dosed up on cola and chippies and other high sugar food.

Teachers are already finding it difficult to teach some of our children -many complain that some children's behaviour is unruly and their ability to concentrate is poor. So why wouldn't schools take steps to improve the quality of food, and therefore the behaviour and learning, of children at school?

Education officials warned the Minister about the link between poor diet and poor learning, before she made her decision to throw out the guidelines.

They warned her that "numerous studies have shown that poor nutrition and health adversely affects educational achievement, and Pacific and Maori students are especially vulnerable in this respect. For example, in a recent study of seven South Auckland secondary schools, 58% of students were found to be overweight or obese. The same study reported that tuck shops were the primary source of lunch for around half of these students."

But she chose to ignore their warnings.

That's why the Green Party launched a nationwide petition calling for the reinstatement of the healthy school food guidelines. We believe the issue is so important that we could not just resign ourselves to the Minister's short-sighted and foolish decision.

We collected sixteen thousand signatures for the petition and it has been presented to the Education Select committee, which has agreed to conduct hearings on it. I have sent in a submission supporting the petition, which should be heard shortly.

I will keep you posted.

Interestingly, two visiting public health experts both expressed astonishment, at a recent public health seminar, that the government had done a U-turn on school food.

Dr Boyd Swinburn, Director of the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Obesity, said "I know of a lot of governments who are doing very little to combat the obesity epidemic, but New Zealand is the only one I know of ..who has actually taken a proactive stance on something which is likely to increase obesity."

Australian researcher Jane Martin agreed. "I find it extraordinary. The Government needs to be shamed for that."

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