Sue Kedgley: Bring back school food guidelines

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Food an important factor in children's ability to learn so government should do right thing and reinstate old rules.

A healthy lunch means better learning and behaviour. Photo / Getty Images
A healthy lunch means better learning and behaviour. Photo / Getty Images

The Government's $1.9 million a year contribution to feeding breakfasts to kids in low-decile schools may be modest. But at least it's a start.

It's also amounts to a long-overdue admission by the government that what kids eat - or don't eat - has a huge impact on their behaviour in school and their ability to learn.

For the past four years the government has been maintaining that what kids eat in school is none of its business.

One of its first acts, on becoming government five years ago, was to throw out the school food guidelines that had been introduced only a year earlier, which stipulated that only healthy food should be sold in schools.

The Government didn't bother to get any advice from schools, or the Ministries of Health or Education, before it scrapped the school food guidelines. It simply announced that it didn't matter what kids ate at school, and that it was not up to schools or the Government to encourage kids to eat healthily.

Once the guidelines were scrapped, a lot of school canteens reverted to selling kids a staple diet of junk food - chips, pies, sausage rolls and cream buns - apparently unconcerned that junk food undermines the health of children, and their ability to concentrate in class.

The Government's decision to scrap the healthy school food guidelines flew in the face of a huge body of evidence that what children eat and drink in school affects their ability to learn, as well as their health and wellbeing.

Educationalists have been pointing out for years that if kids are hungry, malnourished, or hyped up on sugar, they won't be able to concentrate in class, and will be almost impossible to teach. If they are well fed and nourished, on the other hand, they will be better able to concentrate and learn. A Sparc report found that schools that provided only healthy food have better learning and better behaviour, and even better school attendance.

Researchers have also found that what kids eat and drink affects their brain development and their IQ, which is a major determinant of their academic achievement. So it's in everybody's interest to ensure that kids are properly fed.

But it's not just what kids eat for breakfast that affects their learning and behaviour. What kids eat throughout the day is also important.

If kids skip lunch, or are hyped up on sugar and caffeine after a lunch of Coke, cream buns, candy and other junk food, they will struggle to concentrate in class, and will be difficult to teach.

Children go to school to learn, so anything that affects their ability to concentrate in class is important.

And that's why governments around the world have taken steps to improve the quality of food on offer in schools. Most have introduced school food guidelines, similar to the ones our government threw out, and many offer a hot, fully cooked meal every lunch time.

There are other reasons why most countries have introduced healthy eating policies in schools. Children spend around six hours a day, five days a week in schools, for around 13 years of their lives, and around 60 per cent of children buy food from school. So schools are a hugely influential environment, and have a significant influence on children's eating habits and the way they think about food.

Selling high sugar, high salt junk food in schools encourages unhealthy eating and contributes to obesity, type 2 diabetes and dental decay. It also normalises junk food; sends a message to children that it is okay to eat it; undermines the requirement that schools promote healthy food and nutrition in their curriculum, and of course the Government's own health goals.

Many children will always opt for less healthy food if it is available. Already a third of New Zealand children are obese or overweight, and poor diet is the leading cause of ill-health in New Zealand. Why would we encourage children in school to eat unhealthy food and develop poor eating habits?

The evidence is overwhelming that poor nutrition and health undermines educational achievement. So if children are going to make the most of their educational opportunities, they need to be eating healthy food.

So now that the Government has finally admitted that food is an important factor in children's ability to learn in school, perhaps it can also admit that it was wrong to throw out the healthy food guidelines, and reinstate them in schools.

Sue Kedgley is a former Green MP.

- NZ Herald

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