Schools and preschools have an important role in promoting healthy eating and physical activity to students and providing an environment that supports a healthy lifestyle. Good nutrition is important throughout life, but particularly in the childhood years, which are a time of rapid growth and development. Healthy eating has a long–lasting and positive impact on children’s growth, development and health. A healthy diet can also assist in improving the behaviours critical to educational success and performance at school. Effective school-based nutrition and health interventions can also help improve academic performance.
So, with all these positive benefits to a healthy food focus in Australian schools, it seems obvious that the spotlight has fallen on foods served in school canteens or tuck shops (referred to as school canteens in this article) and the issues surrounding food safety and positive nutritional benefits for students.
International Guidelines for Health Promotion in Schools
According to the Health Promoting Schools Framework initiated by the World Health Organisation, a health-promoting school is one that is based on a social model of health. This model takes into account the physical, social and emotional needs of all members of the school community. Together, members work towards providing students with positive experiences and structures that promote and protect their health. Components of a health-promoting school include:
- a health education curriculum
- health services
- a healthy environment
- physical education
- healthy food services
- health promotion for staff and parents
- counselling and psychological programs
- school and community health events.
Principals are encouraged to promote consistent messages about healthy lifestyles in all school activities and promote healthy food and drink choices in all school events, specifically in school canteens.
Food Safety and Hygiene
Current requirements specify that all registered food premises, including schools, must demonstrate that the food prepared and served is safe to eat in accordance with the Australia and New Zealand Food Standards Code and the relevant Food Act in each state or territory jurisdiction. Schools can do this through the preparation of a food safety program.
An important part of a school food safety program is the appointment of a food safety supervisor. This person has the authority to ensure that all food handlers who work (paid or as a volunteer) in the school canteen have the appropriate food safety and hygiene skills and knowledge. To be deemed competent as a food safety supervisor, the completion of units of competency from an appropriate training provider is required. Food safety and handling training requirements usually cover personal hygiene practices, food preparation practices, food storage and cleaning procedures.
Australian Guidelines for School Canteens
A recent Deakin University research project on diet and mental health in children and adolescents found that diets high in junk food affected areas of the brain connected to mental health, memory and learning. Prof Felice Jacka, director of Deakin’s Food and Mood Centre, has said that diet was clearly related to the mental health of children and adolescents noting that half of depression and anxiety disorders start in children before the age of 14. With these disorders starting at such a young age, it then becomes vital for schools to intervene as early as possible and show their students healthy food products and options through the school canteen to maximise their students' mental health.
Most states and territories around Australia have guidelines for the types of food which should be offered in canteens. An outline of the some of the most recent examples in the media are described below.
South Australia has implemented the Right Bite Manual, which colour codes food choices in the school canteen using traffic light signals:
- ‘Choose plenty’ – the GREEN category
- ‘Select carefully’ – the AMBER category
- ‘Occasionally’ – the RED category
However, six schools in the mid Murray region took the initiative further than most, as reported by ABC News, and participated in the Fresh Frenzy program earlier this year, with students learning about the unhealthy reality of processed foods and the impact that their single-use packaging has on the environment. Fresh Frenzy resulted in participating students reducing their waste by almost 60 per cent, with the four-week program encouraging students to select fresh food items that could be packed in reusable containers. Additionally, at the end of Fresh Frenzy, it was recorded that almost 70 per cent of students were eating more healthily at school.
In Victoria, schools are using the Food Checker website, according to The Herald Sun, where, in partnership with the Victorian Government, Nutrition Australia aims to promote healthier school canteens for long term mental health benefits. Victoria has gone even further, adopting the National Healthy School Canteens Guidelines developed by the Federal Department of Health and Ageing. Despite the guidelines not being mandatory for Victorian schools, the Healthy Canteen Kit has been developed to incorporate the National Healthy School Canteens Guidelines into daily school life and support students making healthy food choices.
The Healthy Canteen Kit outlines a whole school approach to healthy eating that:
- makes it easy for students to choose healthy snacks and meals
- offers a variety of nutritious foods
- promotes foods that are consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Children and Adolescents in Australia
- can be an avenue for consistent and continual health education
- complements the diverse elements of the school curriculum
- involves students, parents and the wider school community
- is an integral part of the entire healthy school environment.
The Healthy Canteen Kit also uses a traffic light system, similar to the Right Bite Manual in South Australia, to indicate which foods should be promoted on a school's canteen menu.
Queensland also promotes school canteens and healthy eating through an annual Tuckshop Day to celebrate the important part that canteen staff and volunteers play in a school community and to support students to concentrate and learn well in class. The Smart Choices - Healthy Food and Drink Supply Strategy for Queensland Schools provided by the Queensland Government applies to all situations where food and drink are supplied in the school environment including canteens, vending machines, school excursions, school camps, fundraising events, classroom rewards, school events such as celebrations and sports days, and food used in curriculum activities. Reflecting the Australian Dietary Guidelines for Children and Adolescents and the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, the Smart Choices strategy similarly uses a traffic light system to implement healthier food choices across school canteens.
Role of the School Board
The school council or school board has authority to operate a school canteen through the relevant state or territory Education Act. This authority can be delegated to a club or association that is not a subcommittee of the school board or sub-leased to a private contractor. The school board has an important role to play in making decisions about the education, health and wellbeing of the school’s students. A school board should develop a policy for its canteen and other school food services that supports this role. This policy-making process should include a discussion about the purpose of the school canteen within the school community. Within this process, schools should also consider the food services provided to boarders.
School Canteen and Food Service Policies
Some of the common themes running through all the state initiatives discussed above and the food standards legislation and guidelines across Australia include a whole school community approach and policies and procedures for canteen staff which support and ensure the sustainability of any healthy changes made to school food services. A school canteen or food service policy should reflect the values of the school community and clarify what the community expects from the canteen and other school food services. Items which can be contained in such a policy include:
- nutrition information about foods to be offered
- strategies for promoting and marketing healthy choices
- roles and responsibilities of staff and volunteers
- food safety and hygiene
- occupational health and safety guidelines and procedures
- canteen management including canteen staff (roles and responsibilities of both staff and volunteers) and staff training, particularly in relation to specific food allergies like anaphylaxis, as discussed in our previous article
- financial management including pricing, stock management and canteen equipment
- links to the school’s curriculum and community
- evaluation, review and monitoring of all processes.
Schools should use their school canteen and food service policy to develop a whole school food services policy to establish a healthy eating platform for the school community and work with their community to implement this policy as part of a targeted approach to promoting healthy eating with their students.