The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) says while there is a calculated push to promote nutritious consumption among children, it shouldn’t be overlooked that unfortunately, unhealthier foods are far more affordable and accessible.
Vonetta Nurse, nutrition consultant for UNICEF, was speaking during a Jamaica Observer Press Club when she touted the Government’s National School Nutrition Policy (NSNP) but said that there needs to be a deeper dive to prevent a surge in non-communicable diseases among children.
“We have to create those avenues, for example, to link farmers to schools so that the schools are able to access the local produce which is cheaper, and you can prepare healthier meals rather than having a fast food company as the concessionaire. This will, in itself, alleviate some of those stressors on the parents in terms of the cost of the meals. And there’s the availability of fruits and vegetables, generally. Some communities, you’re not going to get it there,” she told the Sunday Observer.
A copy of the policy obtained by the Sunday Observer said it will seek to establish “partnerships with local producers and small farmers to provide a sustainable source of locally produced foods” to support the NSFP.
Nurse said more attention should be placed on “structural issues”, like the availability and affordability of healthier food.
“It’s something that the Government needs to look at. Even when we’re talking about the School Nutrition Policy, the implementation of that policy is really where the rubber will hit the road, because the policy speaks to the fact that the snacks, meals, and anything that’s offered for sale in and around the schools must meet a particular standard for salt, fat and sugar, and these are international best practices. And this includes the school feeding programme.”
In alignment with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and Vision 2030, the Ministry of Education and Youth developed a draft National School Feeding Policy in 2015, through the assistance of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).
The ministry then integrated this policy into the NSNP to address and establish a national framework for the nutritional standards and physical wellness of students within the school-aged population of education facilities.
On May 3, in his 2022/23 Sectoral Debate presentation in the House of Representatives, Minister of Health and Wellness Dr Christopher Tufton said the policy proposal passed through the stages of internal consultation and is to go before Cabinet as a Green Paper.
Tufton said that the Government will work to guide and, in some cases, mandate school cafeterias to prepare healthier options for students.
“We must help our children to develop healthier habits, and the school environment is the best place to start; this is what we talk about when we talk about prevention. We must make the link between the cost of sickness and the need to avoid or at least delay sickness, and these are the actions that we need to take.”
But Shannique Bowden, executive director of Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network, told the Sunday Observer that school gardens could aid in that regard.
“From some of the conversations that we have had with young people, many of them have school gardens in theory, but not in practice. There’s like an area where they could be growing their own fruits and vegetables,” Bowden reasoned.
“And even when you think about agriculture studies as a class, I remember doing that in grade nine and it was just like an opportunity to go and play in dirt. We weren’t doing anything meaningful. But there are some schools that are rearing their own chickens and work with the canteens. Where that is possible, we think it’s especially important to have school administrators tap into these processes.”
The policy indicated that schools will be encouraged to develop school gardens that help to support the NSFP.
Bowden said the availability of free water on school compounds is also a major concern, as it relates to healthier consumption.
“In my seven years of high school, the water cooler probably worked once, and most schools don’t have water coolers. That is one way in which we can promote healthier options, because if you water readily available, you won’t want to go and buy the cran wata.”
Effective January 1, 2020, sweetened drinks with total sugar concentration exceeding a maximum of five grams/100 ml are restricted from schools.
Tufton said inspections are taking place by parish health officers following the resumption of face-to-face classes, and once completed, he said strict instructions and enforcement around ensuring that the sugary drink restrictions in schools are maintained.
The minister implored private sector food suppliers not to provide schools with products that are against school policy.
Hear the Children’s Cry founder Betty Ann Blaine said the conversation about nutrition really speaks to the levels of family poverty in Jamaica.
“I don’t even know how middle class Jamaicans buy food now. Proper food. It’s so expensive. And so, you really have to ask how poor people manage in this country. I think about it every day. The two Jamaicas in which we live is most stark with the child population. We must fix family life,” she lamented.
Further, Andre Miller, social policy manager at UNICEF, pointed to a 2007 food price crisis report that was conducted by the Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH) on Jamaican households.
“It found that 73 per cent of households were reliant on the food that they receive at school. The Government did a good thing in the COVID crisis when they provided the resources to the households through the feeding programme. What we now have to do now is empower parents,” he said.
“Cornmeal is a good meal. It is a full meal. How can you take a cornmeal packet that costs about $73 and how you can use that to your advantage, so you will not have to rely so heavily on what happens at the gate. It is very cost-effective. We can balance it. We need to educate parents so they can make smarter choices. It does not have to cost a lot for nutrition.”
Ytske Van Winden, international child protection consultant with UNICEF, added: “What we should also integrate into parenting programmes is how to manage budgets. We know that a lot of conflicts in the households surround the lack of resources, so with the limited resources they have, how is it best to plan for the week? And from there, they can make smart decisions around nutrition, education, etcetera.”
But Nurse said some communities across Jamaica have what is called a food dessert.
“You’re going to find a shop with cheese trix and bag juice, and you’re not going to find fruits and vegetables. It is a major problem because the foods are easily accessible, available and affordable. And for parents like myself, the convenience is just there. The fast food company is there, or the snacks are there instead of, for example, preparing fruits or preparing your own meals at home. It is just a little bit more convenient to just go out and buy these products.”
Nurse argued that with attention on the long-term impact on a child’s health, the cost to manage children who are overweight and obese and may develop early onset of non-communicable diseases, has the potential to be much higher to a family than trying to buy healthier products.
“We are seeing that shift where children are having high blood pressure, you’ll have children who are at higher risk for heart disease. The social protection has to come in, and we’re looking at trying to bolster it so that families can afford healthier meals. And we have to look at bolstering the channels that make the local produce and the healthier foods available. It’s something that must be looked at holistically by the Government,” she said.