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Healthy foods the ‘new normal’ in WA public schools, research finds

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The traffic light policy for canteens has made the food and drinks provided in WA public schools healthier and provided a good opportunity to teach children about healthy eating, the majority of stakeholders surveyed in new research led by Curtin University say.

The research, which was funded by the WA Department of Health and conducted in partnership with the WA School Canteen Association, investigated the impact of the Healthy Food and Drink Policy for schools a decade after it was introduced to public schools and examined any resulting implications for the profitability of canteens.

The policy, introduced to WA public schools in 2007, requires canteen menus to comprise a minimum of 60 per cent ‘green’ healthy choices and a maximum of 40 per cent ‘amber’ choices, with no ‘red’ unhealthy foods permitted to be sold, used for classroom rewards or supplied at school-run events.

Lead author John Curtin Distinguished Professor Simone Pettigrew, from the School of Psychology at Curtin University, said the study found that comprehensive school food policies can positively influence the food and drinks provided to school children without affecting canteen profitability.

“This study found that 85 per cent of respondents believed that the foods offered to school children were healthier after the introduction of the traffic light food policy for canteens, while 90 per cent felt it offered a valuable opportunity to teach children about healthy eating,” Professor Pettigrew said.

Professor Pettigrew said it was important to assess the impact of healthy food policies given the reported link between such policies within schools and lower levels of student obesity.

“While school food policies have been introduced in many countries, relatively few have been independently and/or comprehensively assessed. This is one of the first studies to assess policy outcomes over a considerable period of time, and the results are very favourable,” Professor Pettigrew said.

“The results of this study are encouraging for policy makers in other states and countries considering introducing comprehensive school food policies to help address student obesity.”

WA School Canteen Association Executive Officer Megan Sauzier said: “The findings suggest that the conditions required by the policy have become the ‘new normal’, indicating growing support for healthy food and drinks as more people adapt to the changing expectations.

“The results also indicate that the policy does not appear to have adversely impacted the profitability of school canteens and schools are to be commended for supporting healthy choices for students and staff.”

The research found regional schools may need additional support because they had lower levels of compliance with the policy (72 per cent in regional areas compared to 90 per cent in metropolitan schools). The WA School Canteen Association is working with regional schools to provide training and support, and with food distributors to increase access to healthy choices in regional WA.

The study surveyed 307 stakeholders, including principals, teachers, canteen managers, and parents and citizen committee presidents in 2016, comparing the same survey’s results with 607 stakeholders in 2008.

The research, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Public Health Nutrition, can be viewed here.

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