Menus in Australian state schools could do better, according to the results of research compiled for online advocacy group The Parents’ Jury. A review of 263 school menus across Australia identified that only 30% of primary schools and less than 19% of secondary schools are compliant with nutrition guidelines.
Based on feedback from parents, The Parents’ Jury, with the support of Monash University and VicHealth, a health promotion foundation in Victoria, undertook the research to investigate the nutritional composition of online government school canteen menus across Australia.
WA the winner
It found vast differences in compliance among different states and territories. Western Australia, where compliance is compulsory, leads the way, even though just 62% of surveyed menus adhered to the state’s healthy food and drink policy. The next best performing regions were South Australia and the Northern Territory where, respectively, 35% and 29% of surveyed schools complied with their school nutrition policy.
The poorest performing are the ACT with 5%, Victoria with 16% and Queensland with 18% of menus corresponding to their individual policies and guidelines.
In spite of the healthy eating messages consistently taught in Australian schools, the survey found that 56% of all surveyed menus would feature chocolate or other forms of confectionary, and over 96% of schools regularly featured pastries. Over 38% of menus across all surveyed secondary schools featured soft drinks.
The study also looked at menu pricing and found that 87% of all schools served pies regularly, whereas 69% served salads. The average price for a pie was $3.17—somewhat cheaper than the average price of a salad at $3.83.
The Parents’ Jury is now calling for 60% of all school canteen menus to have healthy foods. However, the group’s Corrina Langelaan was largely sympathetic to the schools that were failing: “While at first glance, these results might seem worrying, we found that it would take very little effort to ensure Australian school menus offer children healthier choices.
The survey also found that half of school menus would generally consist of everyday food items (“green” in Parents’ Jury-speak), while 49% of dishes should be treated with care (“amber”), and just 3% were not recommended (“red”).
“Of course we want kids to have the occasional treat and we’re not suggesting they be removed from the menu. However, amber and red items should not exceed green. Green food can be fun and profitable for school canteens. Increasing it would help school menus easily become compliant and give kids the opportunity to make great food choices,” said Langelaan.
The group also wants to see canteens introduce a traffic light labelling system and require all government schools to work with canteen support services.
Well-resourced school canteen support services should be part of the solution, said Lucinda Hancock of Nutrition Australia, which supports Victoria, Queensland and the ACT. “School canteens can play an important role in supporting healthy eating messages for students. Healthier foods can definitely be profitable, and there’s support available for schools to introduce healthier foods and drinks that will appeal to children and teenagers.”
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