Banning junk food in school canteens has been debated almost as long as the women’s reservation bill, yet rising childhood obesity has left most school administrations unfazed: junk food still rules cafeterias.
Teachers virtuously preaching about the importance of eating nutritious food to students seem immune to the irony: them gorging on oil-soaked fries or chhola-bhaturas in school canteens. Delhi’s Directorate of Education has more than once asked schools to stop serving junk food and come up with healthier food options, but since they forgot to define ‘junk’ — just as they did not list healthier options — schools were left to choose menus that suited their pockets. So you have colas, chips, biscuits and burgers finding place in most menus, which almost never offer fresh fruit as a snack option.
The perception that children only love junk is not correct, found a survey of 1,000 six- to 17-year-olds done by Heal Foundation across 20 private schools in the national capital region. Three in four — 75.5% — children surveyed said they’d opt for healthy food if given a choice.
Schools claim they give students what they want. “We can’t deny children what they crave for, they enjoy noodles far more than regular food,” says Dr Madhu Chandra, Principal, Lotus Valley, Noida. “But we offer healthy options such as a ‘hot lunch’, which costs Rs 50 and comprises legumes, wholewheat chapatti, vegetables and yoghurt, which is also very popular.”
When students have a choice, they usually choose right. “People keep saying kids love junk, but the sandwich counter in our canteen is equally popular,” says Shivam Kaul, 15, a student of class 9, DPS Noida.
With rising childhood obesity, many states have banned the sale of junk in government and aided schools, but implementation is difficult in private schools, say experts. “Since packaged foods and drinks offer larger profits, it is not feasible to prohibit the sale of junk food in school canteens. As a possible solution, we need to create awareness among parents and students about the benefits of healthy food,” says Dr A. Laxmaiah, deputy director, division of community studies, National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), Hyderabad
The effects of aggressive awareness campaigns among children and parents about healthy eating habits work, found an NIN study of students in private schools in Hyderabad. “There was a significant improvement in the eating habits of children who took part in our campaigns. We are presenting the results to the state government to ensure similar campaigns are run across the state to offer students choices and help them adopt an overall a healthy lifestyle,” says Dr Laxmaiah, who conducted the study.
“I have a Mother Diary outlet that offers yoghurt and shakes, but it took some time to catch on. Only students in senior school — Class 6 and above — are allowed canteen food five days a week. Juniors are allowed to buy canteen food once a week,” says Usha Ram, principal, Laxman Public School, Hauz Khas, New Delhi.
Say it right
And it’s not that difficult to get students accustomed to spicy chhola-bhatura to order low-fat yoghurt either. “It’s all about targeting their concerns: all 16-year-old want to get into 26-inch waist jeans or get rid of their spotty skins. It’s these health messages that schools should be highlighting, instead of going on about heart disease and stroke, that will occur three decades later,” says Pummy Pandita, an executive with Motorola, whose two daughters, aged 12 and 7 go to DPS, Gurgaon. What the issue really boils down to is whether schools are willing to give students healthy options. And in doing so, practice what they preach.