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Children’s health: strategising to win the war against junk food

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

Schools should stop providing empty-calorie fare of little nutritional value, and instead offer students attractive, healthy ‘rewards’, writes Ruth Benny.

The Education Bureau (EDB) has various schemes to encourage healthy eating in schools. April 2015 is “Joyful Fruit Month”, and the campaigns Startsmart and Eatsmart aim to educate students as well as parents and teachers.

In the local curriculum, the general studies and physical education syllabi include topics on healthy living, starting in K1. This is largely replicated in international schools too.

Schools are making an effort to teach students about making healthy food choices, but in the end it still does come down to parents and children.

Chris Lord, head of food technology at Island School of English Schools Foundation (ESF), says: “Pupils can choose to bring in their own food from home, and while the caterers do still offer less healthy options, the pupils can only be given the information and hopefully, they will make the right choices.”

Two caterers, Chartwells and Sodexo, have contracts with most international schools to serve hot lunches. Both companies serve good quality food and also offer education sessions to students and parents. Yet, many schools have no provision for hot lunches and instead students bring lunch from home.

Unfortunately, schools are not exactly practising what they preach.

In one school, Grade 1 students visit a supermarket for a field trip to support the maths curriculum. While teachers and parent helpers are concerned with helping children maximise value for money, the quality of food purchased is extremely poor, such as candy and crisps.

Common practices that run completely counter to what’s being taught in the curriculum include cupcakes for birthdays, junk food for parties at Lunar New Year and Christmas, tuck shops and vending machines selling sodas, crisps, candies, instant noodles, processed foods and chocolate.

Bus mothers offer children candies, and students taking the school bus are rewarded for being quiet and well behaved with as many as five a day.

While many international schools contract quality caterers, other schools order hot lunches from outside providers with very poor quality meat in dishes, and canned or packet sauces which are high in sodium.

At least one very reputable, local kindergarten orders McDonald’s on special occasions.

Even more worrying is the fact that a few primary schools use a candies-based reward system for students. Recently, when one parent wrote to the school and the South China Morning Post to complain, the school immediately stopped the practice.

What can parents ask schools to do to support healthy eating? Schools must implement alternative reward systems: school “money”, house points and principals’ pencils are all viable alternatives successfully employed in schools such as Victoria Shanghai Academy and Canadian International School.

While many schools seem reluctant to follow suit, a “zero candies” policy works very well at Casa Dei Bambini and International Montessori School.

Schools are not shy to introduce a “no nuts” or “no soda” policy or a “meatless Monday”, yet their reluctance to countenance a “no candies” policy may be down to parents.

ESF Kennedy School banned cakes, cookies and crisps in the classroom several years ago, yet the rule was ultimately relaxed after parental feedback.

In December, Island Christian Academy banned the provision of unhealthy food for birthdays and celebrations.

Suggestions for healthier choices include fresh fruit, sandwiches, chicken or fish pieces, satay sticks, vegetable crudités with dips, sushi or homemade cookies and muffins.

While it’s standard practice in many secondary schools, including ESF Sha Tin College, to have a week that promotes health within the school, this practice is not so widespread in primary schools.

Laura Paul, founder of Healthy Living Asia Magazine, is in discussions with schools to encourage as many as possible to designate one week before the end of the school year “to encourage children to eat real, healthy, whole food and remove candies and cakes from the classroom”.

Originally published in Education Post, March 31, 2015


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