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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 1, September 2007

Students making healthy food choices at school

Strategy, challenge, and lessons learned

By Patrice White

The prospect of influencing students to make healthier food choices from vending machines, in part, inspired me to see if I could make a difference in one Surrey secondary school by completing an action research project. In November 2005, the BC Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health jointly issued two documents. The School Food Sales and Policies Provincial Report identified the food and beverages sold in our schools and reviewed the policies of BC school boards. The Guidelines for Food and Beverages Sales in British Columbia Schools provided criteria and information for implementing healthier food choices for students from school-based vending machines, cafeterias, and stores. Both documents are part of the increasing commitment to an education and health plan focussed primarily on schools. By pointing out the many ways schools can influence health and setting a goal to eliminate the sale of unhealthy foods and beverages in BC schools by 2009, the report and guidelines challenge schools to increase efforts to assist students in making informed choices about nutrition. The goal is to maximize students’ access to Choose Most and Choose Sometimes options, minimize access to Choose Least options, and phase out Not Recommended items. I employed some practical steps in my strategy, faced a few familiar challenges, and learned several important lessons on how to maximize the impact of a school-based initiative to improve students’ food choices from vending machines.

I used the experiences of a variety of projects and research, from the flamboyant Jamie Oliver and British schools’ experiment to the meticulous Aleck Ostry’s ActNowBC school surveys (the basis for the The Guidelines for Food and Beverages Sales in British Columbia Schools), to implement a three-step strategy for improving students’ food choices. First, I formed a student-led group called the Students’ Nutrition Advocacy Committee or SNAC to launch a promotion and introduction of the healthier food choices. The SNAC group added the important elements of "kids helping kids" and student leadership to my action research. The second step was to revamp the food offerings. The students understood the requirement that the new offerings had to meet the specific nutrition standards in The Guidelines for Food and Beverages Sales in British Columbia Schools. The real coup here was having the SNAC members actually identify, sample, and select the healthier options that were to be offered in school vending machines. The third step was the accommodation of the SNAC-member-selected healthier choices. In the school where this project was conducted, the flexibility and co-operation of the vending machine contractor was not an issue. Moreover, The School Food Sales and Policies Provincial Report states that "the Canadian Merchandising Association is encouraging its members to work within their contracts to provide healthier food choices for schools." However, what really clinched the marketing change was ensuring the involvement of students as the ultimate consumers.

Interestingly, even with highly committed individuals, several challenges were encountered during the course of the project. Some healthier food options simply could not be implemented without additional resources. For example, the accommodation of yogurt and cheese snacks required changing to cold vending machines, and the addition of fresh fruits and other expiration-sensitive items created the need for more highly trained stockers. At the same time, some of the healthier food choices tended to be more expensive. This meant the price differences could potentially either discourage students from buying the healthier food choices, or risk the school’s vending economic viability. In my action research project as well as in reports from provinces where similar no-junk-food-in-schools policies have been implemented, even the short term indicate that schools can raise funds without undermining students’ diets and health. The primary challenge was to ensure that key stakeholders were involved in developing and implementing new programs and practices. Support and acceptance of the nutrition policy among administrators, teachers, parents, and students has been consistently found to be essential for the programs and practices to be successful.

Overcoming these challenges led to some important lessons for my school and for other schools on how to maximize the impact of school-based initiatives to improve students’ food choices. One was to gather information from students about their insights, perceptions, and opinions regarding the healthier food choices. Next, it was advantageous to use promotions and samplings to get students’ attention and to identify popular options while familiarizing students with healthier foods. Another lesson was "information is power." By giving students the nutrition facts on both junk food and healthier food choices, the students not only gain knowledge, they are encouraged to do some critical thinking.

So, with the looming deadline for the elimination of all junk food from BC school-based food outlets, it is clear that changes have to happen in many places in the BC school "village" to raise healthy students.

Patrice White is a registered dietitian and teaches home economics at Guilford Park Secondary, Surrey.

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