The global rapid increase in the prevalence of childhood obesity in developed countries over the past three decades has led to an increased concern and focus on the dietary intake of adolescents and children.1,2 Access to healthy food and dietary choices available within the school environment may play an important part in efforts to improve nutrition in school-aged children. The school-food environment has a significant impact on adolescents’ food choices, with 35% to 40% of youths’ total daily energy intake being consumed at school.3 As a strategy to encourage positive nutrition behaviour in children, school policies to shape the school-food environment towards providing better choices can help create opportunities for action by removing barriers to following a healthy diet.
We undertook a survey to examine the current state of school policies and approaches to providing a healthy nutrition environment and food choices across the Southern Metropolitan region of Melbourne, Australia.
We invited 350 public and private schools within the Southern Metropolitan region to participate in a questionnaire designed to assess school canteen policies, diet-related programs and health nutrition practices of the school community currently in place. It was adapted from a School Food and Physical Activity Survey used in the It's Your Move! project as a school environment audit tool in Melbourne.4 The school principal or canteen co-ordinator was invited to complete the questionnaire. The survey included questions on the year levels offered at the school, enrolment size, and the existence of school policies on: canteen food options and funding, food-sponsored events; leaving school grounds to access milk bars and fast food outlets in the vicinity; drinking and eating in the classroom; and the existence of vegetable gardens. A question on the existence of a physical activity policy and health promotion as part of the curriculum was also included.
A preliminary notification letter was mailed to each school with a copy of the questionnaire and directions to an online survey if preferred. Non-respondents were provided with a second copy of the questionnaire via e-mail. A total of 248 schools participated, a response rate of 71%. Of the schools that responded, 90% completed the survey. Participation was voluntary and the response rate was achieved without any form of sponsorship or incentive.
The survey revealed that the majority (88%) of schools had a food service (canteen, tuck shop, lunch order system, breakfast club, etc) Forty-three per cent of the services were operated by canteen managers employed by the school, 13% by volunteers (students, parents, etc), 33% by external food companies, and the remaining 11% by independent food operators or community enterprises. Nearly half (47%) the schools with an external food company operating the food service did not have a written contract or policy with the food company regarding food items provided. Thirteen per cent of the food service providers had a contract with a soft drink bottler or other food manufacturers, giving the company exclusive rights or preference to sell soft drinks or other foods at that school.
More than half (62%) the schools had a written policy or policies relating to promoting and supporting nutrition and healthy eating at school, of which 72% of the policies dictated which foods were available in the canteen, 82% on the availability of drinking water for students, 90% on teaching of food and nutrition in the curriculum and 56% on the staff acting as role models for healthy eating. Twenty per cent of school policies included the provision of vending machines in schools, 41.1% on food used for fundraising, 22% on food used as a reward, and 43% on food associated with school events. In comparison, 86% of schools had a written policy promoting and supporting physical activity in school. The survey found only a quarter of schools were consistent in releasing information about health food and eating to parents monthly in a school year.
A number of schools (46%) had a school vegetable garden, of which more than half were public schools. This benefit of a school-based food garden in the school environment is associated with positive attitudinal changes in vegetable and fruit consumption.5
In conclusion, this survey provides insight into the programs, policies and practices of Victorian metropolitan schools in relation to healthy lifestyle promotion focusing on nutrition. It indicates that there is a greater emphasis in schools on physical activity policy as compared to nutrition policy. More efforts could be made to increase the proportion of schools with a written policy promoting and supporting nutrition and healthy eating in schools, as well as implementing simple initiatives such as school vegetable gardens, and healthy eating promotional material provided for both children and parents.