Changes in the way Washington schools promote healthy eating for children have raised concerns that junk food like chips, soda and popsicles could once again creep onto school canteen menus.
The Department of Health recently awarded a $3.7 million contract to Victoria-based Nutrition Australia to provide a “whole school healthy eating program” – ignoring the WA School Canteen Association, which introduced the state government’s healthy food and drink policy in schools for the 15 last year.
While the new program is expected to continue the traffic light system that labels food choices as green for feeders, amber for occasional, or red for scrap, there are concerns that the new provider will change WA standards.
“At the school level, it could mean that the health of our children is affected because we may have some unhealthy items coming into schools that don’t currently exist,” said Megan Suzier, CEO of WASCA.
“The traffic light system is a little different in Victoria. Red foods, for example, which are sodas, lollipops and chips, are off the menu in Washington and have been off the menu since 2007, while in Victoria you are allowed to eat red foods twice a semester.”
Nutrition Australia has yet to release full details of its approach, but insists there will be no immediate changes to WA’s traffic light standards.
“We will implement the standards that the Western Australian government wants us to implement,” said Margaret Rosman, Program Manager for Healthy Eating Advisory Services at Nutrition Australia.
Ms. Suzier said the decision to ignore WASCA’s excellent track record and experience awarding the bid to an interstate organization meant its funding was down 41 percent, significantly reducing its ability to support schools and evaluate their canteen listings.
“We look forward to seeing what is developed . . . but until this service is established, we are not sure what it will look like, and there will likely be a gap in the services that schools are used to receiving.” “Anything that overburdens the school or canteen workers is likely to have a negative impact.”
Banya Turner, chair of the Western Australian Council of Government School Organizations – the apex body of P&C groups that operates most school canteens – has written to Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson and Director-General of the Department of Health David Russell-Weisz to express her “disappointment at the lack of consultation,” adding: “I have concerns that support for building healthy food cultures in school communities will be less.”
Ms. Turner said the canteens were an important school service. “It is critical that they have access to expert support from people who understand WA schools and the intricacies that come from running canteens that are largely staffed by volunteers,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said it has conducted an open and competitive bidding process to select a program provider in accordance with Washington State Government Procurement Policy to roll out a new comprehensive school healthy eating program for all Western Australian schools – public and private.
“A new school website will be made available with resources, curriculum materials, online training, and an online menu assessment tool, as well as phone, email and face-to-face support for all school and canteen staff,” she said.
“Semesters 3 and 4 are considered transitional, while the new program is fully rolled out by the start of the 2023 academic year.”
The spokeswoman said supporting Western Australians to halt rising levels of obesity is a key priority for the department.
“Helping children form healthy eating habits while in school is an essential part of a concerted effort to help the entire Western Australian community achieve this goal,” she said.
The Education Department said the provider will need to support schools to enact healthy food and drink requirements into public school procedures.