OTTAWA -- While provincial governments talk a good game about weaning students off junk food, many schools across Canada are still nutritional backwaters that serve up french fries, pizza, candy and cookies, says a new report released Wednesday.
The Centre for Science in the Public Interest called for national school nutrition standards, regular policing of food offerings, and a nationwide school-meals program that the report estimated would cost about $1.7 billion.
"We've got an epidemic of childhood obesity in this country, yet it seems that schools are still permitted by provincial governments to sell nutrient-poor foods to children," said Bill Jeffrey, the centre's executive director.
Jeffrey placed part of the blame on provincial nutritional policies for schools, crafted in the last couple of years, which he denounced as "sub-standard."
The report says they fail to meet nutrition guidelines set out by the new Canada Food Guide and the U.S. Institute of Medicine's Nutrition Standards for Food in Schools, which dictates limits on sodium, sugar, and saturated and trans fats, and requires 100 per cent juice, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
It is also "the exception than the rule" for schools to follow provincial guidelines because they are addicted to raising money through the sale of nutritionally empty food that children want, said the report.
"We have found that a disturbing number of school food choices are high in saturated fat and trans fat, salt, and sugar, perhaps because cafeterias focus more on optimizing product sales than children's health," said the report.
Depending on the province, there are broad nutrition policies involving all food in schools, or more narrow policies dealing only with vending machines in elementary schools or volunteer-organized meal programs.
"Overall, Canadian school food criteria are a patchwork of flimsy, inconsistent standards," says the report.
Several provinces, including New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Alberta and Newfoundland, allow the sale of high-fat and high-salt items such as ice cream and pizza. Some provinces, including Quebec and Ontario, lack specific criteria on fats, salt, sugar and portion sizes.
The report goes on to condemn the "paucity of government fiscal support" for healthy eating in schools. The United States provides about $212 per child annually for healthy snacks, compared to $5.95 per student in Canada.
The federal government, while responsible for health, spends no money on school food programs, passing off the responsibility to the provinces, which oversee education, and non-profit groups, the report says.
The report notes that it was hard to obtain specific information on food being sold in schools, but it culled its conclusions, in part, from several other studies and surveys.
They include a 2004 Ontario study that found fare offered for "special food days" consists of hot dogs, potato or nacho chips, pop, cookies, chocolate milk, burgers, cheeseburgers, french fries, ice cream bars, fried chicken and sub sandwiches.
Full story Canadian schools awash in junk food, report says