Thursday, November 11, 2010

Food Revolution Friday: Junk Food Bans and BC's Healthy Living Guidelines

When I was in Toronto for Blissdom, I was surprised to learn that pop is still sold in Ontario schools. When I went home and researched, I found out that Ontario schools are on their way to be junk food free by 2011.

Is it a good thing? Yes. Sort of. In my experience, it seems as though getting rid of the really obvious offenders like chips, pop, chocolate, and fries only open the door for food that is only slightly less junky. I'm really interested in seeing how Ontario rolls out this initiative, and if they can do it better than BC.

In 2005, the Healthy Living Guidelines for schools were introduced in BC. In the 5 years since it was rolled out, there have been two updates, and the guidelines were required to be implemented province wide in September 2008. According to the document, the revision in 2007 made "food and beverage choices in BC schools among the healthiest in North America".

Here's how the Guidelines work: foods are put into categories of not recommended, choose least, choose sometimes, and choose most. Each category has strict criteria regarding fat, sodium, sugar, preservatives, and artificial sweeteners. Schools are not allowed to sell the items that fall into the not recommended and choose least categories. As for the other two, a vending machine can contain 50% of the products from the choose sometimes, and 50% from the choose most categories. (click through to the guideline's pages 9-21 to see the categories and what fits into them)

In 2007, the revisions also removed artificially sweetened items.

"...from elementary and middle schools due to an increase in the number of products containing these ingredients and a broadly expressed desire to minimize children's consumption of these products outside of parental supervision." (page 5)

In 2010, the Guidelines were updated again, this time to increase the selection of juices that would be allowed by the guidelines. Many people think that juice is just straight sugar water and without nutritional benefit, but for a lactose intolerant and soy sensitive kid like mine, it's nice to have that option.

Recently however, I have discovered that Houston, we have a problem.

The Guidelines look great on paper, and they do keep much of the junk out of schools; but there is one thing that they failed to consider.

Diet sodas, as long as they are caffeine free, are allowed to be sold. Why? They fall into the "Choose Sometimes" category, which means that they can make up 50% of the items sold in a vending machine.

Huh? Didn't it say on page 5 that items with artificial sweeteners were removed?

Yes. In elementary and middle schools.

So, here's the issue. With school closures happening all over BC (see a CBC article on that here), districts become creative and amalgamate middle and high schools so there are more students. Which means a school may have students ranging from grade 7 or 8 to grade 12.

Some may say that school food is the least of our worries with all the school closures and underfunding, but if we wanted to only focus on school food, this creates a problem.

Specifically, the Healthy Living Guidelines have no body that enforces the rules. How closely they are followed depends on the administration at the school, and the fact that the Guidelines allow some things for some grade levels but not others poses a problem. If I had a child in grade eight, the LAST thing I'd want him drinking is pop, even if it is sugar and caffeine free. Technically, the pop shouldn't even be available to them but if they attend a school that is grade 8-12, and since it can be sold to the older kids, it may be in the school.

In fact, after a closer look, this doesn't just extend to diet sodas. Products that contain artificial sweeteners such as yogurt, sparkly fruit drinks, milk drinks, puddings, ice milk bars, energy/granola bars, and more are can be available to the very students that the Guidelines state they should NOT be available to.

What do you think? Is it ridiculous to allow some things for older students, and not for others? Should the rules be the same across all grade levels? How would this be enforced, anyway-should vending machines containing the products only be in the senior hallways? Or should schools err on the side of caution and not allow those products at all? What about allowing some products, such as yogurts with artificial sweeteners, but not pop?

I don't personally believe that pop, be it diet, caffeine free, or otherwise, has a place at school. For ANY grade level. The problem is that without anyone to keep tabs on what is sold at schools, no consideration in the guidelines for multi-grade level schools, and vendors who just want to sell products, the water gets slightly murky. It will be interesting to see how Ontario fares, and if they have the same issues that we do. Guidelines are wonderful in theory but with no real enforcement, they become incredibly ineffective.

What do you think?

(Note: as far as I know, there is no pop being sold at my son's school. I have, however, seen instant noodles sold that are well over the guidelines 750+ mg limit for sodium)

Update: Kevin informed me today that diet pop IS now available at his school. "There's no place for pop at school because it's encouraging kids to drink that crap every day. "

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