Nutrition policy for 2012

By Amanda Johnson 11/01/2012

A media release yesterday (10 January) from the University of Otago highlighted concerns about nutrition policy in New Zealand, and the fact that it seems to favour the food industry. This follows on from a paper published late last year in the Journal of Public Health Nutrition — Nutrition policy in whose interests? A New Zealand case study.

The paper, by Gabrielle Jenkin and colleagues, examines whose interests (the food industry or public health) are served by nutrition policies and why. By studying  submissions to an enquiry by the Health Select Committee into Obesity and Type 2 diabetes held in 2006, their research compared the positions of the food industry and public health groups, and assessed whether the interests were getting equal consideration, or whether one group was being favoured over the other. The positions of submitters from the food industry and public health groups such as the National Heart Foundation were compared with the 2007 Labour Government’s response to the committee’s recommendations and the resulting national nutrition policy.

Results showed that the Government’s position was largely aligned with the food industry interests in relation to national obesity strategy, food industry policy, and advertising and marketing policies. In relation to nutrition policy in schools, the Government’s position was in line with public health interests — industry was opposed to mandatory food and nutrition policies in schools, although did support the ‘free fruit in schools’ initiative and inclusion of nutrition education in the school curriculum.

The school nutrition policy was subsequently overturned by the National Government, which according to the lead author Gabrielle Jenkin suggests a strengthening of industry’s influence on our national nutrition policy. She says: ’allowing schools to profit from the sale of unhealthy foods to their students is personally concerning to me as a parent, and should send alarm bells to other parents’. I agree!

Setting nutrition policy is a complex issue and it is important to work with all sectors of society, including the food industry, to seek solutions to the current obesity crisis in New Zealand.  However, industry should not be setting the agenda for nutrition policy for New Zealanders.

The first priority for those in charge of food policy needs to be to promote good health and protect the most vulnerable in our community, such as children, who have high nutritional needs. Every child in New Zealand should have access to healthy and nutritious food. Junk food that is high in fat and sugar should not be directly promoted to our children — particularly in the school environment where we, as parents, have little influence or control.

Individuals, of course, do have responsibility for their own health and for what foods they eat, but by creating a better environment we can make it easier for people to make healthier food choices. Marketing, advertising and promotional strategies around unhealthy foods certainly need consideration, and if self-regulation by industry is unsuccessful, then Government regulation will be needed to control the marketing of unhealthy foods.

The necessity of having healthy food policies in schools is clear cut. By educating children about the importance of good nutrition, we will be creating a healthier, more nutritionally-aware generation. Also, the extention of strategies such as the provision of healthy breakfasts, school milk, and fruit in schools, would all be excellent initiatives — particularly in lower decile schools.

Provision of junk food, whether this is served in the school tuck shop or canteen, or sold as a fund-raiser, should be abolished in the school environment.

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