NEWS | Sunday, 18 November 2007

Junking junk food

Children with an eye for a quick buck are probably scheming ways of hawking Mars bars, crisps and Coke in schools after the junk food ban in schools comes into force in two months’ time. Their success will depend on whether kids really learn to love the healthy goodies set to replace the junk on the tuck shop shelves, notes James Debono

The school junk food ban which will be enforced next January is part of a wider package aimed at promoting healthy eating in schools. Educational authorities are confident that ban will work because all parents want their children to be healthy.
They are also aware that the success of this ban depends on providing appetising alternatives which beat the perception that junk food simply tastes better.
“We do not want a revolution but an evolution in children and parents’ attitude towards healthy eating. We have not just banned junk food. We have also provided schools with recipes for healthy meals,” an Education Division official told MaltaToday.
The ban was largely met by satisfaction by most parents who contacted this newspaper.
“It takes time to prepare a healthy snack for our children. It’s good that they can now buy the healthy stuff instead of over-cooked cheese cakes, crisps and chocolate,” an enthusiastic parent told MaltaToday.
Yet other parents who prefer preparing their children’s lunch queried whether the ban also effects the ingredients used in school lunches prepared by parents.
“Will teachers open my daughter’s lunch to check whether there is a piece of salami or mortadella in the sandwich?” asked a concerned parent. Salamis, mortadella and processed cheese are among the foods banned by the new regulations.
Parents will be encouraged to prepare healthy lunches but no outright enforcement will take place.
“Our aim is to empower parents to make the right choices on healthy eating. We are not just banning junk food. Every school will have a healthy eating policy in which parents are stakeholders,” the Division official told MaltaToday.
So why ban junk food from tuck shops if parents will still be able to put the junk in the lunch box?
The answer is simple: “Tuck shops were the greatest source of junk food especially for children who do not bring a lunch with them.”
Health Promotion Department director Charmaine Gauci agrees.
“This measure will reduce the number of conflicting messages that children are receiving. It sends a clear message to children and their parents that such junk foods should be consumed in much lesser amounts and frequency; whilst reducing the number of opportunities within the school day where children have so far been offered poor choices of food products.”
While everyone seems to agree with banning burgers and chips, the ban on snacks and sweets from schools is not accepted by everyone.
“Why should I deny my children of a chocolate bar or a packet of crisps… don’t they burn all the calories playing football?”
The answer according to the Education division is simple: “Give them a healthy snack.”
This is the definitively bad news for any prospective junk food smuggler: the Healthy Eating Lifestlyle Plan is full of tasty alternatives like hobz biz-zejt, baked rice, pizzas and even vegetable lasagne.
“We are not imposing a dull tasteless diet. There are so many healthy things to eat. We have not just banned junk food but we have also proposed alternatives.”
Children’s Commissioner Carmen Zammit, who supports the ban on junk food as a concrete measure against obesity, notes that some parents lack the social skills required to cook healthy dishes for children.
“Children will have the opportunity to acquaint themselves with healthy alternatives at school.”
Various scientific studies show that a high-fat diet combined with a sedentary lifestyle can take a dramatic toll on a child’s health. Overweight and obese children are more at risk of developing serious health diseases such as diabetes and hypertension than children who maintain healthy weights. Experts warn that if the tide is not stemmed over the next couple of generations, parents may outlive their kids. Today, very young overweight and obese children are being diagnosed with heart disease that historically would have been seen only in older adults.

Retailers concerned
Yet those who make a living from selling sweets and savoury snacks to children are worried. After all, schoolchildren are their target market.
“You are ruining me,” an irate sweet importer told MaltaToday on Wednesday. “How dare you call the products I sell junk?” he asked.
The anonymous importer claimed that the employment of his eight workers is now at risk now that he won’t be able to supply tuck shops.
“What am I expected to do with my employees?”
Just three years ago, angry bar owners made similar arguments before the smoking ban. But the GRTU will not make a big fuss on the ban on junk food.
Contacted by MaltaToday, a spokesman for the GRTU said that his organisation “in principle” favours measures curbing junk food in schools.
As a member of Euro Commerce the GRTU fully supports campaigns against child obesity.
“We want to co-operate on social issues like obesity but we have to be included.”
But the same spokesperson expressed disappointment at the lack of consultation.
“Government should refrain from a holier than thou approach by imposing such measures without consultation. One should always remember that there are people earning a living from importing these products.”
He also told MaltaToday that the GRTU will be organising a meeting for school tuck shop owners to discuss the measures.
But MaltaToday has been told that all tuck-shop operators have been informed about the HELP report and its recommendations and have also been given a document with details on what is not permissible and what healthy alternatives should be provided. Currently there are two different kinds of tuck shop agreements. Those which are run by the school and those which are outsourced through a public tendering process.
MaltaToday is informed that schools which have a financial stake in the revenue made by private tuck shops have lagged behind those who run their own tuck shops when it comes to promoting healthy eating.
Through the new regulations, they will have to get their act in order.
But the new regulations should not be bad news for enterprising businesses willing to tap the new opportunities. This could create a new market for importers of healthy food.
“Products sold in schools will have a certificate of approval. This will create a new demand for these products and manufactures and producers will surely fill this new niche,” the Education Division claims.
The certificate of approval system could also serve as a spring board for the advertising of healthy foods.
Even global corporations are slowly coming on board.
In the US, the American Beverages Association, backed by PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, recently introduced a voluntary ban on all drinks except water and 100 per cent juice in elementary schools.

But the children love it…
Yet the biggest obstacle facing the junk food ban is the fact that children seem to love it.
“I try everything possible to persuade my kids to eat fruit and good stuff, but they simply love burgers, chocolate and anything which harms them,” another parent told MaltaToday.
A study conducted in 2004 showed that on average fruit and vegetable consumption in children and adolescents is very low. In addition, more than 40% of school-aged children consume soft drinks daily.
Gauci acknowledges that snacks might be more palatable as they are high in energy, fat, sugar and salt and this may be responsible for the decline in fruit and vegetable consumption.
But advertising is another factor.
“Children are very often allured to junk food because of the strong advertising and free gifts that accompany the sale of this food,” Charmaine Gauci told MaltaToday.
But research also shows that with repeated exposure to healthier options, including fruit and vegetables from a young age, reduces the tendency to reject such foods. Schools and educational institutions provide a key setting to change prevailing norms.
Through the new policy “students will learn to choose a healthy diet through the snacks provided at school and develop a range of consumer based skills in matters like food growing, handling, preparation and cooking.”

Junk food on TV
Powerful market forces still militate against healthy eating. Global corporations like McDonalds still sponsor TV programmes directly aimed at children.
According to the Health Promotion Unit, global trade patterns have resulted in increased reliance on food imports which lead to poor children’s diet across the world.
“As the food market shifted towards producing cheap food of poor nutritional quality with reduced need for physical labour, the rise of chronic diseases to epidemic proportions was inevitable.”
In view of this challenge the Health Promotion Unit advocates other measures to be taken at national level to support this school initiative by the Education Division
These measures include restrictions on junk food advertising and marketing strategies by the industry aimed at children, discussions with the industry to produce healthier options, where possible and the possibility of including health warnings on junk food.
“This can only be achieved if all relevant stakeholders are determined to cooperate towards achieving such and ‘only such’ a health goal,” Gauci told MaltaToday.
In 2006 the Broadcasting Authority, together with former Children’s Commissioner Sonya Camilleri, had prepared a strategy for quality children’s programming.
The strategy calls for the prohibition of adverts which harm minors. The two examples mentioned in the strategy are junk food and toy weapons.
The policy also calls for the setting up of a fund for the production of such programmes to make them less reliant on adverts. But the policy has yet to become law.
Children’s Commissioner Carmen Zammit supports the ban on junk food advertising. “Only healthy food should be advertised in children’s programmes. This ban should be enforced as soon as possible.”
Zammit also finds the organisation of events targeting children by companies producing junk food objectionable. Referring to yesterday’s World Children’s Day, organised by McDonalds, Zammit said: “I disagree completely with such initiatives. This is a subtle way to attract children to eat burgers. The only good burgers for children are those prepared at home and which do not have high fat levels.”
World Children’s Day marks the day on which the Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, in 1959 which protects children from all forms of exploitation. But McDonalds commemorates this day by organising charity events using its brand name and mascot clown Ronald MacDonald.
McDonalds claims that thanks to World Children’s Day, more than $27 million was raised to support Ronald Mac Donald House Charities. Since the program’s inception in 2002, World Children’s Day efforts have raised over $100 million.

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