The Delhi high court’s recent order, directing schools to follow new guidelines on junk food, has revived the debate on what children should eat in schools.
The guidelines, framed by a court-appointed committee under the aegis of the Food Safety & Standards Authority (FSSAI) of India, identify certain category of food and drinks as harmful for children and advocate these be "regulated or restricted".
However, many parents and schools in Mumbai are wondering whether such guidelines are enough to stop children from consuming junk food.
The guidelines say that "making available quality and safe food in schools, foods high in fat, sugar and salt that must be limited by schools in canteens and restricted within 50 metres of it”. The guidelines were framed after the panel examined harmful effects of junk food on children.
“The guidelines are scientific, comprehensive and establish the harmful effects of junk food. The essence throughout the document is to not allow the availability of such food items in schools,” said Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).
Narain said they would have liked a complete ban on the sale of junk food in schools, but what the Delhi high court has ordered is also very significant. “Restriction is an important step in recognition of the fact that this kind of food is bad for children, and must not be allowed in schools,” she said.
However, parents and activists are not convinced that this will stop schools from serving junk food. “My son eats junk food every day in his school canteen, even though I give him home-cooked food for tiffin,” said a resident of Borivli, on the condition of anonymity. “We have raised the issue with the school authorities several times, but they have not bothered to take any action.”
Schools continue to serve junk food because it is cheap and easy, said activists. “Schools receive cutbacks from vendors, and canteen contractors also prefer such items because it boosts their sales,” said Jayant Jain, president, Forum for Fairness in Education, a parents-teachers body.
Even education officials admitted they do not check whether schools serve junk food as there is no regulation against it so far. "We cannot stop a school from serving junk food, as there is no official ban in place. We can at best advise them to opt for healthier choices," said BD Phadtare, deputy director of education, Mumbai division.
Schools also said it will be difficult to restrict junk food in its vicinity. “Our school is near a college that is surrounded by hawkers. It is hard to stop junk food sale, because these are not places you can shut down easily,” said Kavita Aggarwal, principal, DG Khetan International School, Malad.
What do the junk food guidelines recommend?
Common junk food that is high in fat, salt and sugar, such as chips, fried food, sugar sweetened carbonated beverages, sweetened non-carbonated beverages, ready-to-eat noodles, pizzas, burgers, potato fries and confectionery items, should be restricted in schools and also in the vicinity of 50 metres around the school.
Advertisement and promotion of such foods targeted at children is to be regulated through a framework.
A canteen policy should be implemented based on colour coding. Green category items — the healthy food options — should constitute about 80% of available foods, while red category — most common junk foods high in fat, salt and sugar — shouldn’t be sold or served in schools.
Suggested, healthy menu options should include fruits, paneer / vegetable cutlets, khandvi, poha, uthapam, upma, idlis and kathi rolls, low fat milk shakes, fresh fruit juice, fresh lime soda, badam milk and lassi.
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) should fix limits of unhealthy ingredients such as certain kinds of fat to 5% at the earliest.
Schools should promote nutrition education and awareness for children. A well-structured curriculum on balanced diet and its impacts should be introduced.
How guidelines were framed
The PIL by Uday Foundation through its founder Rahul Verma had sought an immediate ban on junk food and carbonated drinks in all unaided and private schools. After preliminary hearings, Delhi HC had set up a panel to examine dietary habits of schoolchildren on the question of banning sale of junk food in and around educational institutions.