School nutrition: Are we failing Canada’s kids?

In many provinces, vending machines are still doling out chips and pop to students. Without national nutrition standards, that won’t change

School nutrition: Are we failing Canada's kids?

Source: Best Health Magazine, March/April 2009

I’m Paul Finkelstein, a teacher at Stratford Northwestern Secondary School in Ontario, and a regular contributor to Best Health. Each day, I help teenagers learn how to cook and enjoy eating healthy, locally sourced food. That’s why it drives me nuts when, too often, I see students leaving class to go to the vending machine for a pop or sugary snack. Parents who wouldn’t dream of doling out pop or chocolate bars at home may not realize that vending machines in our schools could be replacing their child’s healthy meal.

What kids really eat at school

Here are the facts: 26 percent of Canadian kids qualify as overweight or obese. Students eat about a third of their daily food at school. And adolescents make 78 percent of their vending machine purchases there, according to Promoting Healthy Eating in Schools on the Alberta government website, Of these purchases, 64 percent include a beverage, 32 percent include candy or gum, and 26 percent include salty snacks. These junky treats and often oversize drinks take the place of healthier choices, like fruit or milk, and kids don’t make up that nutrition shortfall at home, says Dietitians of Canada. It’s maddening, since we know that a high-quality diet boosts learning.

But school nutrition policies’which typically cover all foods sold in schools, including vending machine products’can mandate healthier choices. Nova Scotia and British Columbia, for instance, have regulations ensuring that only foods considered maximum- or moderate-nutrition choices are made available. Unfortunately, some of the other provinces and territories have guidelines that are voluntary’which often keeps the junk in schools and vending machines. Also, some policies offer few limits on fat, sodium or sugar, and allow sugary fruit drinks, donuts and chips.

"Voluntary guidelines don’t work"

So we don’t need to ban vending machines, but we do need mandatory standards to keep their offerings healthy. Kathy Romses, a registered dietitian in Vancouver, says vending machines stocked with snacks such as fresh vegetables and low-fat yogurt can play an important role in healthy eating‘especially in secondary schools, because teens often don’t pack a lunch. In Romses’ view, ‘voluntary guidelines don’t work.’

Bill Jeffery, Canada’s coordinator of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a North American health and nutrition advocacy group, agrees, but he worries that standards may not be followed even where they are mandated. ‘There’s anecdotal evidence that some schools totally ignore them,’ says Jeffery. He’s calling for comprehensive federal nutrition guidelines and a pan-Canadian school meals program.

Why vending machines rule

Demanding that school vending machines offer healthy food seems like a no-brainer; why isn’t it happening? The answer: C-A-S-H. Machine commissions can mean $10,000 to $15,000 a year to a school, and an exclusivity contract (meaning a machine carries only, say, Coke or Pepsi products) can net more.

Without enforced nutrition guidelines, schools can choose the vending machine distributor that offers the best commission. But healthier items cost vending operators more, and they don’t provide the 25 to 30 percent commissions many schools are used to, says John Leveris, a market development manager with Dairy Farmers of Canada. (He is trying to get machines that sell healthy items such as milk and yogurt into Ontario secondary schools.)

To be fair, manufacturers like Coke and Pepsi produce bottled water and 100% fruit juices. They’re also members of Refreshments Canada, an association that doesn’t support vending machine bans or overly restrictive regulations, but does have its own recommended voluntary guidelines for schools. These encourage only 100% juices, bottled water and milk in elementary and middle schools, and no- and low-calorie beverages and 355 mL-maximum serving drinks in high schools. That’s a start, but the reality, at my school anyway, is that there are still 591-mL bottles in machines. (And how about using the water fountain instead, for environmental reasons? But I digress.)

Nor can we blame vending machine operators, who have risen to the challenge in provinces with nutrition standards. In terms of the functionality of vending machines, ‘healthy products vend just as easily as unhealthy ones,’ says Glen Jackson, a spokesperson for the Canadian Automatic Merchandising Association. But there’s less incentive for vending operators to invest in refrigerated machines to improve their mix of products countrywide if demand isn’t there. ‘The best thing that could happen is a national initiative.’

Parents can be part of the problem; many parent councils support the sale of junk food to fundraise for school programs. (See ‘What you can do,’ below.) ‘Without guidelines, there’s often a battle between parents who want to make money for schools and those who want to promote health,’ says Romses.

The Nova Scotian example

Nova Scotia is an example for all to follow. Plenty of consultation and a three-year phase-in starting in 2004 helped them overcome challenges in developing their nutrition guidelines. ‘There was certainly concern expressed early on about the financial impact,’ says Ann Blackwood, the Department of Education’s director of English program services and co-chair of the Food and Nutrition in Nova Scotia Schools Policy Work Group. But research suggested that revenues would eventually rebound, she adds.

So why don’t we have a national policy? ‘The responsibility for schools rests with the provinces and territories,’ says Health Canada spokesperson Paul Duchesne, adding that Health Canada has hosted meetings with the Federal, Provincial, Territorial Group on Nutrition to discuss school food policies. But if Health Canada can enforce nutrition labelling and food safety, why can’t it protect the health of our students?

Some argue that if you don’t offer sugary, fatty treats at school, kids will just get them somewhere else. But they will choose healthy items if they’re the only things available’which is why we need mandatory nationwide nutrition standards for school foods.

School nutrition policies by province

To complete this chart, we contacted the ministry of education for each province and territory, as well as dietitian Kathy Romses and Bill Jeffery, national coordinator of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a health and nutrition advocacy group.

‘ Voluntary guidelines suggest foods for elementary schools be 100 percent of what the guidelines classify as ‘choose most’ foods, 60 percent for junior high schools and 50 percent for high schools
‘ Recommend milk, soy beverages, 100% fruit or vegetable juices; no pop or sports drinks; no artificial sweeteners or trans fats

British Columbia:
‘ Mandatory guidelines eliminated sugary, processed and fried foods and beverages in September 2008
‘ Emphasize consumption of whole grains, fruit and vegetables and milk products

‘ Voluntary guidelines stress their ‘eat most often’ foods with clear criteria on fat, fibre, iron, sodium and sugar, but still allow ‘eat sometimes’ and ‘eat rarely’ foods

New Brunswick:
‘ Mandatory policy prioritizes ‘maximum nutritional value foods’ low in fat, sugar and salt, but allows ‘moderate nutritional value foods’ that are a source of nutrients while being potentially high in fat, sugar and salt. Bans ‘minimum nutritional value foods’

Newfoundland & Labrador:
‘ Voluntary guidelines encourage foods low in added fat, sugar and salt and high in nutrients be served most, and foods sometimes low in fat, sugar and salt be served moderately
‘ Sugary treats, fried foods, soft drinks, fruit cocktails not recommended

Northwest Territories:
‘ No standards

Nova Scotia:
‘ Mandatory standards allow only maximum- and moderate-nutrition choices in vending machines and schools (with clear criteria on fat, sodium, sugar and calories)
‘ Only milk, 100% fruit juice and water are allowed

‘ No standards; there are no vending machines in schools

‘ Mandatory legislation minimizing artificial trans fat in school food
‘ Voluntary guidelines on healthy foods in vending machines for elementary schools only
‘ No guidelines on vending machines or foods for secondary schools

Prince Edward Island:
‘ No vending machines in elementary schools
‘ Mandatory school board policies for elementary schools only
‘ New policies due this fall for all schools, with criteria on sugar, fat and sodium’applying to vending machines, too

‘ Voluntary guidelines to eliminate fried foods, sugary snacks and sugar- or artificially sweetened soft drinks
‘ Prioritize food groups, especially fruit and vegetables, whole grain, low- or no-fat foods with little to no saturated or trans fat
‘ No specific criteria/amounts of fat, sodium, sugar, calories

‘ Mandatory guidelines in development; expected March 2009
‘ Many schools already have a 50 percent nutrient-rich choice policy

‘ Mandatory policy that’s extremely vague; includes following Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating and First Nations traditional foods

What you can do

1. Speak up about local and provincial education nutrition policies.

2. Organize a parents’ committee to examine healthy food choices for cafeterias, school stores and vending machines.

3. Coordinate fundraising activities that don’t involve the sale of junk foods like cookie dough or chocolate bars (such as flower sales or book drives).

4. Discourage the use of candy, pop and chips as rewards or prizes in school.

5. Contact your school trustee, provincial minister of education and federal MP to voice your support for mandatory, nationwide nutrition standards for schools.

This article was originally titled "Let’s Have a National Policy on School Nutrition," in the March/April 2009 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today and never miss an issue!