Schools adjusting to life with less sugar

BY KIMBERLEY HIBBERT
Senior staff reporter
hibbertk@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, November 10, 2019

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SEVERAL Corporate Area primary schools have made adjustments to their canteen menus in keeping with the Guidelines for Beverages in Schools, which was tabled in Parliament at the start of the year and places restrictions on sugary beverages in and around schools.

Following the tabling of the guidelines, some secondary institutions revamped their offerings and implemented their own bans. However, there were concerns for the primary schools which also have to contend with outside vendors.

When the Jamaica Observer visited four primary schools to see the implementations made since the guidelines were tabled, the schools all shared one common sentiment — they were in agreement with the guidelines and had began making adjustments long before Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton announced his plans.

“Long before the minister spoke about no sugary content we had stopped offering sodas, so that was out of our menu at the tuck shop. When that came in from the minister we sprung into action. We adjusted, based on his regulations. My canteen supervisor ensures that the persons who we contract to get beverages from are compliant with what the minister says. We have implemented and adjusted what we have in our tuck shops so they are at the sugar content that is recommended. We have also implemented water day so every Wednesday it is only water that is served to everyone on the compound,” said Shallette McIntyre, principal of St Francis Primary and Infant.

McIntyre added: “Initially when we started the water day it took a little while to adjust, even the teachers. Initially the students would come and say 'miss, we need to have something sweet'. It took a while to adjust; we remind each other and they remind me. Now everyone has settled in. We are looking to extend it in terms of fruit day because now we are officially on the Jamaica Moves programme. We have the policy and are up to date and abiding by the rules.”

Kahiefa Walcott Johnson, head of the infant department at Excelsior Primary and Infant School also said changes were implemented before the guidelines, as they are governed by the Early Childhood Commission.

“Because of the babies and because of the standard that is required, we have been practising that before the ministry introduced it. We don't encourage children to drink sweet drinks; they are encouraged to bring two bottles of water each day and each Wednesday it's just fruits and water,” Walcott Johnson said.

However, the canteen that serves Excelsior Primary is operated by Tastee Jamaica, a fast food chain popularly known for its beef patties.

Leon Dobson, the canteen supervisor, explained that they have adjusted their meal offerings to include healthier options.

“We don't sell soda, just box drink, flavour splash, and natural juices. We have also introduced healthy days on Tuesdays and Thursdays where there is no fried food and we are looking to introduce another healthy day,” Dobson said.

Rose Williams, vice-principal at New Day Primary and Junior High, also said the school had removed sodas and mainly promotes the consumption of water as beverage.

“While we don't have water days we promote water drinking a lot. We also let parents know where we are going in accordance with the ministry. On a class basis they are encouraged to drink more water and eat more fruits. Especially in grade one, nutrition is a big part of the curriculum and the coordinator will introduce fruits students are not accustomed to. In addition, there is a lot of health education going on and partnerships with corporate companies that stress the importance of a healthy lifestyle to both students and teachers,” Williams said.

Olga Robinson Clarke, principal at New Providence Primary said in keeping with the guidelines, the school had made a concerted effort to purchase more water and the cranberry flavoured bag juice, said to contain less sugar than other flavours.

“We have been buying more water. Some grades we have a water day where they drink only water – either bring it, or buy it at school. Few will say 'miss mi want something sweet', but when they see their friends buying the water you will find that they do buy. Usually that bell that goes at lunch many will buy the water,” Robinson Clarke said.

Health minister Dr Christopher Tufton said he is pleased with the general acceptance of the policy to restrict sugary drinks in schools and said in the coming months additional measures such as a nutrition policy to guide meal preparations for students will be introduced.

“This is being done in collaboration with the Ministry of Education. All this is of course to address the increase of obesity and premature illness in our children. We still have some challenges, however, including trying to influence what vendors sell on the outskirts of school compounds. This we have to work on,” he said.

Out of the four schools visited, vending was observed at New Providence Primary and New Day Primary and Junior High. However, the school administrators said they do their part in terms of health education and continue to encourage students to make the healthier choice.

Tufton further addressed concerns that the guidelines for beverages in schools were paternalistic and restricted freedom of choice.

“The truth of the matter is Government has to act in a manner that respects freedom of choice but at the same time protects the vulnerable and greater good of society. In this instance our children are risking their development because of excess consumption of certain foods. That applies generally but certainly within the school environment, the Government has a responsibility to give the best possible guidance and the best possible learning environment. In that regard the choices they make can't be free for all particularly when the government discerns certain threats with some of those choices,” he said.

The health minister further explained that the restrictions are supported by strong scientific evidence and within public health there is a duty to do no harm.

“Just as how you have restrictions around tobacco and alcohol because of the clear scientific evidence to suggest that at a young age consumption of those things are harmful, the science is very clear around excessive consumption of sugar and indeed of other things. This is why the nutrition policy as a holistic approach is necessary,” Dr Tufton said. “We have done work to show that up to 70 per cent of our students consume one or more bottles of sugary drinks per day. On the associated challenges of premature illness and learning disability around obesity and premature illness, it is quite responsible for government to create an environment that is more conducive for young people to learn and develop. That is a duty that we have. I don't accept the issue around trying to restrict freedom of choice in this instance.”

Moreover, Dr Tufton encouraged parents to continue to act in the best interest of their children by monitoring their food consumption at home and within other environments.


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