Trying to wean kids off fun and fizzy foods

2013-08-14 00:00

IF parents and schools want healthy children, they have to restrict their food options. That’s the conclusion of experts after examining the results of a survey done by Nestlé of primary school tuck shop usage and what children are eating.

The study was conducted among a sample of 20 private primary schools in Gauteng where tuck shop operators were interviewed about their products. In addition, online interviews were conducted with 652 mothers of children who attend private or government primary schools.

In the tuck shops audited, the top sellers were chips and fizzy drinks, followed by toasted sandwiches, garlic bread, iced tea, hot chocolate, spaghetti bolognaise, frozen yogurt, hot dogs, popcorn and sweets.

“The results revealed that the majority of children are consuming fizzy, fattening, fun and frivolous food at school — not good news when you consider that they spend a big portion of their day there, and that nutrient deficiencies can lead to health problems later in life,” said Naazneen Khan, nutrition, health and wellness manager at Nestlé South Africa.

Part of the problem appears to be a reluctance on the part of tuck shops to enforce healthy eating, while also having to keep their eye on stocking items that will sell. Although only five percent of tuck shop operators believed that the pupils ate healthily and 30% agreed that they ate “far too much junk food”, only 30% of the tuck shops surveyed sold fresh fruit, and only 28% sold fresh milk.

Some of the tuck shops said that they had tried to sell healthier foods but that the children were not interested in them. They believe that it is the responsibility of parents to teach their children healthy eating habits.

Witness columnist and dietician Sharon Hultzer rejects this, saying children can’t be expected to make wise nutrition choices on their own. “Offer the healthy options without the unhealthy ones. Yes, they need education and good role models at home, but they also need guidance at school. This could be achieved by simply not offering the junk-food options. Or perhaps only offer junk food on one day in the week — a special ‘treat day’.”

Fran Jorgensen, teacher and manager of the tuck shop at St Nicholas Diocesan School in Pietermaritzburg, says the school has “definitely tried to give healthy options. We stock a salad a day, which can be pre-ordered and we try every day to have a healthy option, such as pizza or a chicken burger and salad.”

The tuck shop has tried some items such as soup in winter, which haven’t been popular. “In the end, it’s about supply and demand,” she said.

She says juniors from grades one to three have their lunch checked by the teachers and the juniors are not allowed to buy from the tuck shop. Grades four to seven can buy what they like, but most sales are to the school’s high school children. Jorgensen says the primary school children mostly take lunch from home and if teachers notice something amiss or unsuitable a letter is sent to their parents.

“We do try,” she said, “but junk food is seriously popular. The media plays a huge role — [children] see the brands such as McDonalds on TV. If they don’t buy from us, they’ll go somewhere else.”

However, she says there has been a encouraging shift in what the school’s high school girls are buying, indicating that all is not lost.

Education appears to be key, which Khan acknowledges. “Parents and tuck shop operators need to work together to help children make better choices, This can only be done through a joint approach of educating children about healthier choices, encouraging them to make better choices and stocking nutritious foods.”

Hultzer suggests that schools could time changes in their tuck shops’ menu with lessons about healthy eating. “Use it as a teachable opportunity schoolwide, and then follow it with revamping the tuck shop menu. Often children will choose fruit, milk, yogurt, wraps, etc. if there aren’t the cheaper and less-healthy options such as crisps and chocolates offered.”

She says the minimum tuck shops should provide is fruit; sandwiches or wraps filled with maybe two options per day such as tuna, egg or cold meat; popcorn instead of crisps; yogurt and perhaps two fluid options such as milk, drinking yogurt and water rather than fizzy drinks.

Most parents would probably applaud these measures, although they may only help to slow the tide of junk eaten, rather than stem it. As one mother, who prides herself on the healthy lunch boxes she packs for her children, put it: “My children say they get the worst lunches. Probably most of what I send is traded for other stuff.” Children will find a way.


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