It’s commonly said that children have a mind like a sponge – able to absorb information far more effectively than at any other life stage. It would seem, then, that childhood is the best time to learn healthy eating habits, both to coincide with their rapid growth and development, and to establish good habits to carry forward into adolescence and adulthood.
Unfortunately, many Australian schools are falling short in providing appropriate food and nutrition education to children, with set lessons on food and nutrition being notably absent from the draft national health and physical activity education curriculum last year. In the absence of a standardised approach, schools and teachers are left to search and provide education materials independently – if at all – and the resulting lessons may not necessarily be in line with the most up-to-date guidelines.
And this is worrying because, as a whole, Australian children don’t have particularly healthy diets. There is a propensity for fruit and vegetable consumption to fall during school years – just over half (57%) of kids aged between 5-7 years meet the ‘two and five’ recommendation for fruit and vegetables, and this number drops to just 5% among those aged 12-18.
In males and females between 4-13 years, an average of almost 40% of daily energy derives from discretionary foods – mainly biscuits, cakes, muffins, soft drinks and confectionary – and to top it all off, 1 in 4 children aged 5-17 years are classified as overweight or obese.
It’s pretty clear that more steps need to be taken to arm kids with a stronger understanding of the importance of nutrition. Encouragingly, there are a number of wonderful food and nutrition education initiatives currently in place Australia-wide. Take the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation – a not-for-profit program that engages primary aged kids, teaching them to “grow, harvest, prepare and share fresh, seasonal food.” Having personally volunteered with the program, I can absolutely vouch for the value to be had in involving children in understanding where their food comes from, and how to prepare and share it.
And then there’s the issue of the school tuck shop. For most of us, the tuck shop evokes memories of a soggy paper bag encasing a greasy sausage roll, and sadly this is still the reality for many schools. Though foods like this may be reasonable as a weekly treat, in a lot of schools these are available and consumed daily. The National Guidelines for healthy foods and drinks supplied in school canteens are perhaps the most official of guidelines relating to the provision of food within schools, but even these aren’t mandatory. The guidelines are based on a ‘traffic light system’, meaning that
- Foods labelled green, like fruit and vegetables, plain milk and low fat yoghurt, wholegrain breads and cereals, and lean, unprocessed meats and eggs should always be on the menu, and presented in attractive and interesting ways
- Food labelled amber, like fruit juice, flavoured milks, dried fruit, savoury pastries, muesli bars, milk based ice creams and processed meats are to be ‘selected carefully’, preferably in smaller portions and of less prominence than the green selections.
- Foods labelled red, like soft drinks, cordials, coffee-style drinks, deep fried foods, lollies and chocolate, and juices or icy poles made from less than 99% juice, or with added sugar are not recommended on the canteen menu.
It all sounds pretty reasonable, but journalist-turned-health-coach Sarah Wilson (of ‘I Quit Sugar’ fame) is unconvinced. She believes the system is outdated and that sugar should be considered more seriously in the guidelines, with things like Paddle Pops and flavoured milks being restricted, and that updated guidelines should be made mandatory, with ongoing monitoring.
Similarly, fellow health coach and celebrity chef Pete Evans has aspirations to roll out a ‘healthy school lunches program’. Though the details are sketchy, it’s assumed it may follow his paleo ideals – limiting grains, dairy, sugar and vegetable oils.
There’s no doubt that a stronger stance needs to be exercised over nutrition education and the provision of food and drinks in schools, but my concern with suggestions like this is that while in theory encouraging a ‘perfect’ diet free of ‘junk food’ sounds wonderful, to quote dietitian Marnie Nitschke, “Do we really want to teach our kids that foods have either good or bad moral values?”
Again, children have a mind like a sponge, and if we instil a sense of fear or shame at the idea of consuming ‘discretionary’ foods, there’s a risk of establishing an unhealthy relationship with eating.
So with the disheartening knowledge that there is currently no national nutrition education curriculum (Click here for the Dietitians Association of Australia’s response to this), what can we do?
Advocating for programs like the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program is a great first step. Additionally, local primary schools should be encouraged to seek the help of the Healthy Eating Advisory Service. Funded by the Victorian and Australian Governments, and run by Nutrition Australia, this service works to support schools, childcare centres and workplaces with education, menu planning and staff training. If you think your local primary schools might be missing out on vital nutrition education, they may well benefit from the HEAS.
However, while these programs are wonderful on a small scale, the unfortunate reality is that won’t see widespread change in this area until the government gets serious about enacting national standards for nutrition education and canteen menus.