HealthDoctor Karen

Danger of teen’s school lunches

Doctor KarenBy Dr. Karen Palmer
Danger of teen’s school lunches

A new Irish Heart Foundation survey on food provided in second level schools in Ireland found that students are exposed daily to unhealthy food and drinks high in fat, sugar and salt in as many as 51% of schools. A staggering 40% of schools did not provide free drinking water for pupils.

The survey of 39 post primary schools which looked at the type and range of meals provided, showed that while 37% of schools offered full hot meals and 37% offered cold snacks like sandwiches, nearly 70% of schools offered hot snacks including sausage rolls, pizza slices and paninis, many of which are high in fat and salt.

Irish Heart Foundation Dietitian Sinead Shanley, who undertook the research and scoping exercise in schools said: “Ireland is in the throes of an obesity epidemic as a nation and as many as one in five teenagers is obese or overweight.

Yet despite calls to improve the availability of healthier foods in schools, our survey shows the opposite – that instead of enjoying a protected environment at school, Irish teenage students are faced everyday with unhealthy foods, low in nutrition and high in calories.

“A quarter of schools had tuck shops and 47% had vending machines. Eating these foods is not just about obesity – it is also crucial that our young people get nutritious food, food that keeps their organs and body systems healthy. We know that 20% of 13-17 year olds have diets high in sugar, and diets that are low in fibre, calcium, iron, folate and vitamin D, many of which are essential for growth, development and protection against heart disease.”

According to the Irish Heart Foundation, there is a ‘free for all’ approach to food provision at second level because unlike primary schools where policies exist, at post primary there is no national standard in this area.

Maureen Mulvihill, Head of Health Promotion, Irish Heart Foundation, the national charity fighting heart disease and stroke, stressed that the school environment is changing at second level, with increasing availability of hot and cold food and snacks available to pupils.

She said: “There is no national standard to ensure that healthy, tasty and nutritious foods are provided at second level, but positively 95% schools said they would be interested in a National Catering Standard, e.g. through a Healthy Catering Award scheme, which the Irish Heart Foundation aims to establish by year end.”

A research poll for the Foundation found that the majority of Irish parents (52%) support a ban on the sale of sugary sweetened drinks in secondary schools.

Ms Mulvihill added: “There is a real disconnect between what parents want, the appalling health status of our young people, what the Government hopes to achieve through Healthy Ireland and the reality of what food young people eat at school.

“As a first step the Irish Heart Foundation calls on the Department of Education and Skills to immediately publish a healthy food policy stating that there should be no sales of Top Shelf Foods from the Food Pyramid in schools, as indeed some schools have already done. This policy also needs to ensure that all schools provide free drinking water to pupils.”