Stop harming our children with unhealthy canteen food

Children spend at least a third of the day in school and during this time, they eat at least one meal in the school canteen. This is especially so in most urban areas, where both parents work and are unable to find the time to pack lunches for their children.

Food is a vital growth and health factor in human life, and especially so for the growing child. It must not only be nutritious, but also healthy. This means we must ensure that meals served in schools are nutritious and healthy.

The eating habits of students are greatly influenced by the food available in the school environment. The food they eat contributes substantially to their nutrient intake and will to a large extent influence the development of their eating habits, growth patterns and energy levels.

Consuming nutritious food and adopting a healthy lifestyle will enable students to grow and develop to their optimum potential, leading to improved educational performance as well.

A healthy diet also plays a preventative role in relation to nutrition-related conditions and diseases such as overweight, obesity and dental disease, and, in later life, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus and a range of cancers.

So what are our children exposed to in their school canteens? Well, most school canteens still sell unhealthy food and snacks!

This is the admission of Health Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai. He was quoted by the press as saying on Aug 15: Checks show that many canteens are still selling fried food that do not meet the ministry’s guidelines on healthy food.

And he went on to say that a recent survey of 10,000 children aged between six and 12 revealed that 24% of them were either overweight or obese.

CAP is very distressed to hear this. We have, for many years now, been highlighting that unhealthy food and drinks are being sold in and around schools, but the problem continues to persist.

We must point out that the “Guidelines on Management of School Canteens” (Panduan Pengurusan Kantin Sekolah) clearly state that sweets, pickled food (jeruk) and snacks containing artificial flavouring and artificial colouring are not permitted.

The Guidelines also state that food containing excess sugar, salt and fat, instant noodles, iced confectioneries, artificially-coloured drinks, flavoured drinks, tea, coffee and fizzy drinks are not encouraged.

In addition, the Guidelines also provide clear pointers for canteen food operators on how to prepare food with 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.

A study conducted in 2008 by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia showed that children are eating items such as fried chicken, fries, nuggets, chocolates, ice-cream, carbonated drinks, cream biscuits and jeruk in schools.

And now, more than two years later, the Health Minister tells us that nothing has changed. School canteen operators do as they please!

So who is responsible for this situation?  The federal authorities for not monitoring or taking action?  The school authorities for being indifferent?

We can guess: Just pass the blame to the children for creating the demand for such unhealthy food!

We call on both the Health Ministry and the Ministry of Education to act to enforce the Guidelines. Ensure that school canteens provide healthy and nutritious meals for the children and impose stiff penalties on stall operators who refuse to cooperate.

Provide healthy and nutritious meals will also be a means of educating the children about healthy food, and the food to avoid outside the school.

If need be, the schools should also offer space in the canteen free of charge to operators who provide healthy and nutritious meals.

Considering the huge sums of money the Government is spending elsewhere, it can easily subsidise the schools for the canteen costs, should this be necessary.

It is also very important that parents, teachers and students work together to support a wholesome approach to developing a culture where both primary school pupils and secondary school students actively choose nutritious food and a healthy lifestyle.

Letter to the Editor, 18 October 2010