Should school kids be peddling junk food?

By Amanda Johnson 23/02/2010

It’s the start of the school year and our little boy, who has just turned five, started primary school a couple of weeks ago. Already he has come home with a big bag of 40 ‘Cookie Time’ biscuits that we are expected to sell for $1 a piece. As a dietitian, it doesn’t feel right to be promoting such an item — which from a nutritional point of view provides little more than energy, fat, saturated fat and sugar. And, when you think about it, there are around 320 kids at my son’s primary school; that means 320 kids each taking home and selling 40 cookies. By the end of this exercise, the school could have sold as many as 12,800 biscuits, providing over seven million kilojoules of energy and around a hundred thousand grams of sugar to our local community. However, the school needs funds to provide high-quality education. So what do we do? Probably, we’ll just give the school $40 and sling the biscuits to the back of our pantry.

It also concerns me that these biscuits carry the Heart Foundation tick — implying they are a healthy food! I wonder if people realise that the tick actually just means that a product is a better choice than a comparable product in the same category — not that it is a healthy food to be over-indulged in whenever you like!

And all the local schools are doing a similar thing. On a regular basis at the moment we have cute little kids knocking at the door with their bright little hopeful faces looking up at us, asking us to buy their big bars of chocolate, biscuits, or bags of lollies. Personally, I find it impossible to say no to them as I don’t want to disappoint or upset the children. I’ve just bought yet another bar of Cadbury’s chocolate that I really didn’t want. The companies behind these fundraising products probably count on this!

This whole culture starts practically from birth: when my little boy started ‘water babies’ swimming lessons, at just one year of age, at the end of each lesson he was given a voucher for a free McDonald’s cheeseburger. Luckily he couldn’t read at that point and we could confiscate it and throw it in the bin without him being any the wiser. The same thing happened at kindergarten, when he was three years old (McDonald’s vouchers distributed to the kids), and when we joined our local toy library (aimed at pre-schoolers) we were told it was compulsory to sell a minimum number of big bars of Cadbury’s chocolate to raise funds. Further, when we take the kids to school, there are McDonald’s-branded safety vests worn by the children who help supervise the road crossings.

How appropriate is all this? In the current climate, where we are living with an epidemic of childhood obesity, should we really be allowing these companies not only to promote their high-fat, high-sugar products to our VERY young children, but to actually have these children promoting and selling their products for them? I think not. And I’m not alone in thinking it is now time to take the issue of healthy eating among our children seriously and take a look at what’s going on in our schools. It’s time for compulsory legislation for healthy eating policies in schools and it’s time to stop the widespread promotion of chocolates, sweets and lollies by our children and to our children in order to raise funds. We need to instil messages about the importance of good nutrition, from teaching children about healthy food and providing healthy foods in the school environment, to looking at health promotion activities that will help to raise funds for schools.

Let’s face it — you are what you eat, and if we fill our children full of junk they are unlikely to meet their physical and intellectual potential.

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