Act now to protect the health of our school kids

The Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) is simply perturbed to read the report that the “Guidelines on Management of School Canteens” (Panduan Pengurusan Kantin Sekolah) is being violated and that unhealthy food such as sweets, pickled food (jeruk), snacks containing artificial flavouring and artificial colouring are still being sold inspite of it clearly being not permitted.

The problem of unhealthy food being sold in school canteens is not new. For some years now this problem has been brought to the attention of the relevant authorities, but CAP’s efforts in calling for a healthier young generation has fallen on deaf ears. The Guidelines states that food containing excess sugar, salt and fats, instant noodles, ice confectionaries, artificially-coloured drinks, flavoured drinks, tea and coffee, and fizzy drinks are not encouraged.

In addition, these guidelines also provide clear pointers for canteen food operators on how to prepare food that has less sugar, salt and fat; and also the importance of including high-fibre foods in their servings. There is no excuse for the canteen operators to plead ignorance.

For many years now, CAP has been highlighting that unhealthy food and drinks are being sold in and around schools, but the problem still persists. We have brought to the attention of the Ministry of Health that some schools in Penang were selling “fast foods” like nuggets and fries and a host of junk food and drink which was highly coloured, sugared or salted, or contained too much preservative,

A study conducted by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia had also shown that children are eating items such as fried chicken, fries, chocolates, ice-cream, carbonated drinks, cream biscuits and jeruk in schools.

All these findings clearly show that canteen operators are openly flouting the Guidelines without fear of action being taken.

CAP calls on the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education authorities to act swiftly to halt the sale of unhealthy food and drink to schoolchildren. Stiff penalties should be imposed on canteen stall operators who refuse to cooperate.

Junk food can be substituted with traditional food dishes like nasi lemak, meehoon, noodle soup, thosai, idli, chapatti and uppuma, but these foods need to be prepared in a healthy manner. The oil and salt that is used to prepare these dishes should be used sparingly. Canteen operators should also ensure an ample supply of fresh fruit.

Fizzy drinks and other sweetened, coloured drinks can be immediately replaced with plain drinking water. Water fountains or dispensers could be placed in school compounds and canteens to encourage children to drink water.

To ensure compliance by all concerned, the relevant sections of the Guidelines on Management of School Canteen should be converted into law to allow the authorities more enforcement powers. The list of foods that are “not encouraged” under the Guidelines should be moved to the banned list and prohibited by law.

The Education Ministry and the Ministry of Health should also work hand in hand with the Local Government to immediately halt the practice of food being sold outside school grounds. A fixed radius or buffer zone can be set around each school where hawkers are barred from carrying out their business.