Otara can't easily escape its reputation for poverty, crime and low-grade fried chicken, yet within the borders of this tough South Auckland neighbourhood, there is an oasis of calm, water and good food. Yendarra School in Bairds Rd, decile 1a, in the poorest of poor communities, used to reflect its surroundings.
"Our children were hyperactive in the afternoons," says principal Susan Dunlop. "There were a lot of behaviour problems, violence, poor attendance, fights in the playground.
"The one thing we could change immediately was what children brought - if they brought any food. A lot didn't bring any, or if they did, it was a big bag of chips, pies, fizzy drinks."
But a radical idea in late 2005, approved by the board of trustees without consulting parents, has led, in stages, to peace in the playground, healthy lunchboxes, and children who are engaged in learning.
Yendarra began 2006 as a water-only school. It wasn't the first to shun sugary fizzy, fruit drinks and other sweet beverages, but the concept has hardly caught on fast.
Nine years later, just 10 per cent of schools are water-only.
Pressure to act
A Ministry of Health survey obtained by the Herald on Sunday under the Official Information Act, lifts the lunchbox lid on food in schools and reveals that sugary fizz is sold by 9 per cent; sugar-free soft-drinks by 12 per cent and energy drinks by 4 per cent.
The Government is under pressure to act on nutrition, following the January report of the World Health Organisation Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, headed by the Prime Minister's chief science adviser Professor Sir Peter Gluckman. The commission, of which former prime minister and current -United Nations Secretary-General hopeful Helen Clark was a member, called for schools to "eliminate the provision or sale of unhealthy foods".
New Zealand has the developed world's third-highest rate of children who are obese or overweight. The rates are higher in poor areas and for Pacific and Maori children.
The centrepiece of the 22 schemes in the state's Childhood Obesity Plan is a new ministerial Health Target, which came into force on July 1. It requires that, by the end of next year, 95 per cent of children identified as obese in the Before School Check of 4-year-olds will be referred to a health practitioner.
The ministry's survey shows the best and the worst of food in schools and reveals the efforts to encourage healthy habits and the struggles within a wider community food "environment" that can be far from healthy.
It was sent to all schools. Nearly a quarter - about 550 - replied, of which 81 per cent are primary schools.
On the one hand, 17 per cent of schools in the survey still sell chips, lollies, chocolate and pies; on the other, 80 per cent now have a vegetable garden.
The Ministry of Education says a "large number of schools" don't sell any food.
About half in the survey said they had a formal healthy-eating policy. For many, this involved being water-only, prohibiting fizzy drink, takeaways or big bags of chips and biscuits.
One said it issues guidelines on "what we expect for lunches", others look into kids' lunchboxes, and have a chat with parents when snacks high in salt or sugar, or even just packaged foods, turn up.
A school that discourages fizzy drinks worries that "legally you might be challenged by a parent if you try to enforce a ban".
"From time to time," another said, "a parent will turn up with takeaways.
These pupils eat in the office area and their softdrinks are put in the fridge and collected after school."
Elsewhere, teachers have been instructed "not to use sweets for rewards"; even for birthdays, there shall be "no sharing of sweet treats".
But although many schools have taken a boldly prescriptive approach, others seem timid.
"We have a rubbish kai day ‹ every Thursday is the only day in the entire week where our tamariki are permitted to bring/eat takeaways, pies and chips. Lollies and fizzy drinks are only on special occasions when we have a whole kura shared kai day, which is usually to celebrate a special event."
Or another school that has "pies available some days, limited flavoured milks, limited range of cakes and biscuits".
You don't see cakes and biscuits ‹ or muffins or packet foods - in the lunchboxes at Yendarra, nor at the school's kai shop, where sandwiches are the sole item.
Sandwiches were also what the Herald on Sunday saw as the lunchbox mainstay; a few children had crackers, carrot sticks, peanuts, boiled eggs, yoghurt, there was an occasional Cheerio or sausage - and heaps of fruit, helped by the Government's fruit-in-schools scheme in lower-income areas.
Yendarra believes its success lies in not formally banning foods or drinks, but instead, as deputy principal Mary Takatainga says, by "celebrating healthy food".
Children who bring healthy food - and their families - are praised, which is encouraging more to follow.
"I used to have a brown bread award," says Dunlop. "We would stick a label on the loaf of bread and give it to those families who helped themselves, families who made amazing lunches, to say congratulations."
Teachers have noticed the dividends of healthy food and drink extend to more than just better behaviour and learning.
"We notice our children are looking slimmer, fitter, winning trophies [at inter-school sporting events]," says Takatainga.
And the extra-large-adult sized uniforms that used to be ordered aren't needed now. As well as these impressions, there is some evidence suggesting Yendarra kids' teeth may be in better shape than those of other children in the area.
Auckland University researcher Dr Simon Thornley checked dental records of children aged 8-11 at Yendarra and 10 surrounding schools. Yendarra's had on average 2.5 baby teeth decayed, missing or filled, significantly fewer than the 2.9 at the others.
He expects the reason is Yendarra greater enthusiasm for restricting sugary drinks.
Fruit juice may be an emerging battleground for schools, following the appeal by the Health and Education ministries in March for all schools to convert to "water-only" - which includes plain, reduced-fat milk - this year as an important step towards creating healthy food and drink
environments. In the survey, 39 per cent of schools reported selling fruit juice.
"Energy drinks and fruit juices are something we will target more," says the Auckland Primary Principals Association president Diane Manners.
Her school, Kohimarama, is not water-only, but is "exploring the opportunities of what a water-only school will look like".
"I'm sure there are a lot of schools starting to explore how they might reduce the influence of sugar in children's diets and drink seems to be one of the biggest we can manage effectively."
Kohimarama doesn't allow children to bring fizzy but they haven't ever brought much.
Manners is surprised by the survey's finding that 8 per cent of respondent schools reported food industry sponsorship, including two mentions of fast-food outlet McDonald's and one of Hell Pizza.
"I think most schools would not, as part of that role-modelling [of healthy nutrition] promote any type of fast-food outlet. There may be one-off events and maybe they provided vouchers."
The survey also found that 17 per cent of schools reported having programmes or events in the preceding 12 months that had involved food or beverage companies, including fast-food vendors, engaging with students.
Public health specialist Professor Nick Wilson, of Otago University, says: "Any sponsorship in schools by the food industry is problematic from a public health perspective but especially companies producing food high in sugar, salt and unhealthy fats."
"The overall picture is of a Government that is not meeting its basic responsibilities to give children a good start in life by having healthy school environments Š One bit of smart legislation could make it easy for all schools to sell only water, milk without added sugar, and a defined range of healthy foods, eg fruit and sandwiches."
Gluckman is shocked by the findings on fast food industry connection with
"Educationally it is nonsensical that with one hand you are trying to promote healthy lifestyles through education and at the same time you are not creating a healthy environment in the educational space."
Simon Kenny, head of communications at McDonald's - New Zealand's primary supporter of junior football in New Zealand - says the restaurant chain does not sponsor schools.
McDonald's franchise restaurant -operators make their own decisions on sponsorship, for which they receive requests daily from individuals and groups, including schools, ranging in value from "small" amounts of money or some vouchers to "thousands of dollars".
"In some cases franchisees provide financial support with no expectation
of acknowledgement. In other cases the school celebrates the support provided. Often requests are made for vouchers to use in raffles for parents, or achievement awards. [These] include a voucher Š for a grilled chicken snack wrap, a cheeseburger or a donation to Ronald McDonald House Charities.
"Ronald McDonald has been visiting primary schools for more than 25 years as part of the 'make it click' road safety programme."
Hell Pizza's general manager, Ben Cumming, says the school that named Hell as a sponsor would have been referring to fundraising through lunch orders.
He estimates Hell stores raise funds for up to 150 schools. For every kid's pizza ordered, the store donates $1 to the school.
Cumming says 274 schools are participating in his business' Reading Challenge, which is run as part of its sponsorship of the NZ Children's Book Awards.
He asserts that Hell pizzas are a good contribution to a child's balanced diet and says all pizzas on its "333 kids" range pass the nutrient profiling standard of Food Standards Australia New Zealand, the test required for health claims.
However, one pizza from that range, with ham, delivers 2520 kilojoules of energy - more than one-third of the median daily intake of Kiwi boys aged 7-10 - and 7.8g of saturated fat.
Parents are deeply concerned about unhealthy food at schools.
A survey by the Health Promotion Agency found "overwhelming support" for restrictions: those believing it's -either important or very important that schools limit access to sugary drinks numbered 93 per cent; sugary foods, 92 per cent; and high-fat foods, 85 per cent.
In the Health Ministry survey, several schools indicated they wanted Government help with stricter regulation. One noted that the rule that mostly only healthy options could be sold was "gaining traction" before it was abolished by the incoming National Government in 2009.
But there's no need to wait for the Government, says Gluckman: "School boards could do it now; they've got the authority."
Health Minister Jonathan Coleman is sticking to the National Party's nutritional line, favouring education, not restrictions on choice - mostly.
"You've got to change the way people think about food and exercise," he says. "Compulsion around food is not the way to approach that. It's a matter of identifying schools where there is an issue around obesity and the type of food they sell and working with those schools to try and change those food offerings and try and make sure the right programmes are being rolled out."
He finds the picture to emerge from the survey "brighter than many of the critics of the Government would have expected it to be".
"It's going in the right direction," he says of efforts to address child obesity.
Coleman has a no-more-regulation supporter in Vaughan Couillault, chairman of the Counties Manukau Secondary Principals Association and head of Papatoetoe High School.
"I don't think the problem lies with what's sold or regulated for at a school," says Couillault. "It's more about members of the community taking care of their own dietary needs in their own household than moreregulation at a school level."
His school has four dairies within 500m, plus petrol stations, and students often arrive at school consuming pies, chips and caffeine-containing energy drinks.
It's a common problem: an Auckland University study found that 69 per cent of urban schools have a convenience store, and 62 per cent a fast-food or takeaway shop, within 800m.
Has Couillault considered a no-fizzy policy?
"It would be very difficult to police. A number of [secondary principal] colleagues have tried that and I'm not sure how successful they have been."
But at primary school Yendarra, the success is on open display and celebrated. These children and others at water-only schools may be marking a turning point in the nation's food and drink culture.