It’s the week before public school trustee Sheila Taylor is to introduce a motion to ban junk food sales in Calgary Board of Education (CBE) schools. Sitting in the main-floor café of the bright new CBE Education Centre, which includes the renovated Dr. Carl Safran School and grounds, the Ward 11 and 13 trustee is armed with a weighty binder packed with reports and statistics backing the initiative.
“We’re seeing that the number of kids consuming [junk food] on a daily basis is really concerning,” she says. “I would say junk food is harming kids’ health.” As grim as some of the stats are, they’re depressingly familiar. Almost a quarter of Alberta school children are overweight or obese. Though the childhood obesity rate is alarming, Taylor says, the issue is much broader.
“It’s also an issue of nutrition,” she says. “We do also know that what you eat makes a big difference in your learning. There have been a lot of studies that have shown a direct link between eating and things like discipline, academic performance and the ability to learn.” Given that what kids eat impacts their school performance, she believes the ban speaks to the school system’s central purpose: learning.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
The sheer ubiquity of junk food would seem to make the task of banning it in schools hopeless. Even if kids can’t get junk food in school, they can get it at nearby convenience stores and even in their own lunch bags. However, Taylor doesn’t agree. “We know that it makes a difference,” she says of the removal of junk food from schools. She references more studies from Stockholm in Sweden, the University of Nebraska and Temple University that conclude the removal of junk food from schools has a positive effect. “We know having these foods at your fingertips makes it a bit too easy,” she says.
She knows there will be resistance to the ban. “Whenever you talk about change, there’s always resistance,” she says. “I’m not proposing that we take junk food out of every child’s life, but that when they’re in our care, that our environment is healthy for them and that we make the healthy choices easy for our kids at school.”
Taylor says support for the ban from her constituents has been overwhelming, and the issue is moving forward nationally. Five provinces — Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and British Columbia — have adopted strict anti-junk-food policies. Alberta does not have existing provincial school nutritional standards, though it does publish Alberta Nutrition Guidelines for Children and Youth that Calgary’s public and Catholic school systems have used to create their own rules.
These guidelines organize foods into three simple categories: “serve most often,” “serve sometimes” and “serve least.” While the first two categories include healthy foods that are low in sugar, high in fibre and nutritional content, the third includes items of low nutritional value like chips, pop and so on.
The CBE adopted an 80-20 policy on January 1 of this year. That is, 80 per cent of the food served in vending machines, cafeterias and other points-of-sale must be from the two healthy categories.
The Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) has been phasing in its somewhat stricter policy since 2004. The system’s elementary students are allowed only foods from the “serve most” category, and junior high schools provide only “serve most” and “serve sometimes” foods, while high schools are subject to the 80-20 rule. That is, only high school students in the Catholic system can purchase junk food at school.
“By the time kids hit high school they’re aware of what constitutes a healthy choice,” explains CCSD spokesperson Janet Corsten. “They’ve been educated throughout their elementary and junior high school years in terms of proper nutrition.” District nutrition policy is reviewed annually.
Corsten sits on the district’s Healthy Choices for Healthy Learners committee, which develops initiatives to further encourage good eating habits, and she says parents are very supportive. For e.g., a bulk-food purchasing program for school canteens is currently being developed to help individual schools conform to provincial nutrition guidelines.
As well, as of October 1, CCSD will eliminate junk food sales in its vending machines.
Ally Taylor has two teenagers in the public school system — Nicole, 14, attends Bishop Pinkham Junior High, and Matthew, 16, is enrolled in Western Canada High School. Taylor discourages junk food at home, but knows she can’t control what they eat once they leave home. “You just try to educate them and hope that their teachers and coaches — if they’re into sports — are reinforcing that.” She commends her son’s sporting coaches for their constant promotion of healthy eating to enhance physical performance.
She is supportive of junk food bans in schools. “They’ll definitely go around the corner to the local 7-11 and get it themselves, but at least that way you limit the immediate access.”
Two of Natalie Robertson’s three children attend a Conseil scolaire du Sud de l’Alberta elementary school. While neither the CBE nor the CCSD regulate kids’ lunch bags, this French immersion elementary school does not allow children to bring junk food in theirs. She believes this is not strictly a nutritional issue, however. “One kid gets the Mars bar, so all the other kids want a Mars bar and all hell breaks loose,” she quips.
She and husband Alexander as well as their kids are vegetarians and, she admits, are likely more nutrition conscious than most folks. She strongly supports school junk food bans, suggesting that parents’ desire to keep their kids’ diets healthy is only natural.
“The fact that I don’t feed my children crap brands me as some sort of health fanatic, but it’s kind of ridiculous when you think about it. Just because we eat lots of homemade food and fresh fruits and vegetables, doesn’t mean that we’re health freaks. It means we’re normal.”
JUNK FOOD EXPELLED
Though Taylor’s motion was voted down at the September 21 CBE board meeting, the defeat was largely procedural. Pat Cochrane, CBE board of trustees chair, explains that the board’s junk food policy has been a three-year work-in-progress with the same eventual aim Taylor had in mind. Although Taylor says a date for a ban had not been set prior to her motion, after the vote administration revealed that the sale of junk food in CBE schools will be no longer be allowed as of January 1, 2012. No more non-nutritional foods such as French fries, chocolate bars or soda pop will be sold in canteens, cafeterias, tuck shops and vending machines.
Cochrane says the CBE will continue to educate staff and students on the shift, and that the three-year ramp-up has helped set the stage to ease the ban into place. Parents have been informed of the move, she says, as have vending machine suppliers.
Though vendors have been lukewarm on the ban, citing lost profit, Cochrane says the CBE has a good relationship with them. “My understanding is they’re willing to work with us.”
As to the loss of revenue for schools that may result, Cochrane cites one CBE school that has been junk food free for some time and has experienced no loss in vending machine revenue.
“And ethically,” she poses, “what do we think about making lots of money off junk food, because it’s our kids that are spending that money?”
Taylor says there is much evidence to show that this is the norm in schools that have outlawed junk food. A 2005 government of British Columbia report suggests that vending machine and fundraiser sales in that province’s schools typically amounted to $10,000 or less per school annually. Almost 60 per cent of schools that implemented healthy food guidelines experienced no decline in revenue, while some saw revenue increase.
Negative commentary on the CBE ban has largely been muted. There is not a large pro-junk-food lobby among teachers, staff and administrators. However, immediately after the September 21 vote, a Calgary Sun online story about the outcome was festooned with anonymous comments equating the move with communism, nanny state-ism and social engineering. One even advised young free-enterprisers to set up their own locker-side junk food retail operations.
“If a parent wants to fill up a child’s backpack to the brim with chocolate bars, that is their choice,” says Taylor. “But it is short-sighted for us as a school system to fund our schools on choices that we know are unhealthy. We can’t be funding our schools on junk food sales.”