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When Pat Benetar sang “Love is a Battlefield” in 1983, she wouldn’t have had any idea that in 2019, school canteens would also be a battlefield. This week, School Stream is (bravely) looking at the competing demands on the school canteen.

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The canteen plays a big role in school life

School canteens are an integral part of school life. They are a lifesaver for busy parents running out the door with multiple drop-offs, a work day to negotiate and no lunchbox food in the house. For kids, it is a chance to independently manage their own food choices for the first time. School canteens also underpin all the healthy eating education that goes on during class time.  In fact, you could say that school canteens are punching well above their weight.

Child Nutrition is a priority for us all

There is no doubt there are some real challenges facing school canteens in 2019. Pressure comes from all sides, and canteens are expected to manage the ultimate balancing act of veganism, zero-waste, allergy awareness, meeting healthy eating guidelines, and managing parent and student expectations.  Add in the pressures of secondary school-aged students ordering lunch in via food delivery apps and you have quite the quagmire. Canteen Managers need to accommodate all this while maintaining a healthy profit. Running a small country would be easier. But in the midst of this, there is something we all agree on: we want our kids and teenagers to thrive at school and beyond. In this context, the statistics around obesity and its associated health risks are concerning. Recent studies show that as many as 1 in 4 children were overweight or obese in 2017-2018. Child nutrition needs to be a priority for everyone.

The Australian Guidelines to Healthy Eating, meet canteen menus

Much of the current work on state and territory-based strategies to get our school canteens healthy is informed by the Australian Dietary Guidelines. These guidelines are designed to keep Australians of all ages on track and eating well to promote health and wellbeing, as well as reducing the risk of diet-related and chronic illness. 

Different approaches, same aims

It’s worth noting that while there are different approaches to communicating the healthy canteen message from state to state, the healthy eating message remains the same. So while some states such as Western Australia and Queensland use a “traffic light system”, others such as New South Wales use the concepts of “Everyday Food” and “Occasional Food”. In all cases, the aim is to get kids and teenagers eating well and in line with the Australian Dietary Guidelines. What does this look like in action?

5 steps to a healthier canteen

In New South Wales, school canteens are required to observe the following five steps to meet the healthy canteen standards in NSW.

  • No sugar sweetened drinks of any kind are to be sold. Most schools are already doing this. Popular substitutions include fresh fruit slushies and milk.
  • ‘Everyday’ foods should make up 75% (or more of the menu). ‘Occasional’ (or ‘Sometimes’) foods are to make up the remainder. Pro tip: Some schools report success in serving grilled chicken strips in place of chicken nuggets. 
  • All ‘Sometimes’ food and all ‘Everyday’ cereal must have a Health Star Rating of 3.5 or above.
  • Limit portion sizes for flavoured milk, juice, ready to eat meals, and all ‘sometimes’ food and drinks. 
  • Market and promote the ‘Everyday’ choices so they stand out and sell well.

School canteen success story

Whether you are taking your first tentative steps towards converting your school canteen from ‘heat and eat’ to healthy eating, or you have been successfully serving roasted chickpeas for some time, it’s always good to learn from others. Here is a  success story from the front line. 

Wil Angus runs the canteen at the Marrickville Public School where he makes everything from scratch. He shares the following tips that keep students on-board with healthy eating at the canteen. It seems marketing the menu is just as important as providing tasty food.

  • Keep the food looking consistent, presentation-wise.
  • Create imaginative names for the food to engage the children. Typical menu items at Wil’s Cafe have names like “Midweek Mexican Mayhem”.
  • Involve the parents by sharing the menu and requesting help from parent volunteers.

By all reports the children love the healthy choices available at the canteen. “They feel healthy, they feel happier and they learn more,” said Principal Kerry Chambers. 

Healthy canteens are the future

Healthy canteens are here to stay. In the words of Murrumbidgee Local Health District health promotion coordinator Alex Walker:

School canteens set the tone for healthy eating across the whole schoolThe students learn by experience and when they are taught about healthy eating in the classroom it should align to what can be purchased in the school’s canteen… We should be making healthy eating the easiest choice for our children.” 

Did you know School Stream can support your school canteen? Keep the menu and payment systems within easy reach of parents via their smartphones.