New Brunswick's public schools are getting rid of chocolate milk and juices in a revamped nutrition policy that Education Minister Brian Kenny announced on Wednesday.
The province unveiled reforms to Policy 711, also known as the "healthier school food environment" policy, at a news conference in Fredericton.
The minister said the updated policy will give students access to healthier foods starting in September.
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"We're working together to teach children and youth what a proper meal looks like and encourage them to live a healthy lifestyle," Kenny said.
Students spend more than half of their day at school and consume 30 to 60 per cent of their daily food during that time, he said.
It's important to give youth the idea "you are what you eat," he said.
"In light of that, schools should strive to serve foods and beverages that are whole, minimally processed, locally sourced when seasonably available, and prepared in a healthy way," he said.
Flavoured milk and juices will no longer be offered in breakfast, lunch or hot lunch programs, in vending machines, as à la carte items or snacks, in canteens or at fundraisers.
The ban applies to items that are not for sale, such as foods and beverages offered to students during classroom or school-wide events.
Dairy farmers not happy
Claiming the new policy will have no impact on dairy farmers, Kenny said the industry will simply sell more white milk to schools.
But Paul Gaunce, chair of the Dairy Farmers of New Brunswick, was doubtful.
Chocolate milk makes up 75 per cent of milk sales to New Brunswick schools because kids like the flavour, he said.
Gaunce said he'd be surprised if students switched to white milk when the policy comes into effect.
"It's going to alienate a generation of children from drinking milk," he said.
"And five years from now, they'll come back and say, 'Oh my goodness, our children are still obese and they have weak bones and bad teeth, I guess it wasn't the milk.' By then it'll be too late."
Gaunce said 250 millilitres of chocolate milk is nutritious.
"The little bit of sugar in milk is nothing compared to the nutrition the kids get from it," he said. "It's the same milk — it's just got added chocolate for the flavour."
Positive student reaction
Ava Campbell, a Grade 3 student at Barker's Point Elementary School who was at the announcement, suggested she's fine, for the most part, without chocolate milk and juice.
"It's not so good for you, it's not really real food," she said.
But Ava admitted that the drinks will be hard habits to shake.
"I know that there's sugar in it, but sometimes I like it."
Eddie Badiu, a Grade 2 student at the school, said he liked the policy change.
"I'm fine with that because I don't really like all of it," he said.
If Eddie does get a hankering for chocolate milk, he'll have to consume it at home.
"I don't really like orange juice, but I kind of like flavoured milk."
Expand the ban, prof says
Gabriela Tymowski-Gionet, an associate professor in the kinesiology department at the University of New Brunswick who's researched ethical issues affecting children, said it's a positive step considering the province's high level of childhood obesity.
According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, 36 per cent of children in New Brunswick are either overweight or obese.
Tymowski-Gionet said children are consuming "empty calories" by choosing drinks with added sugar. Juice, she said, doesn't contain the fibre present in the fruit, while concentrated orange juice is like eating five oranges, and all that sugar, in one sitting.
She said the ban could instill healthier habits in students because behaviours and palate are developed during childhood, possibly reducing the chances they will seek sugary drinks in other settings.
The professor said she would like to see similar action in places other than schools where children congregate — arenas, for example — and also at workplaces and universities. Adults have a part to play too, she said.
"Adults need to be healthy living role models. If it's important children don't take in all these added sugars, it's important adults don't, either," Tymowiski-Gionet said.
She said she hopes more changes will occur in schools to promote healthy choices, adding it would be best to have healthy options, such as whole-grain and plant-based foods, as the default.
"In order to see significant differences in New Brunswick, we need to make significant changes," she said.
Reducing chronic illness
The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development partnered with the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health and dietitians from the public health unit to revise the food policy.
The policy addresses vegetables, grains, milk and alternatives, mixed entrées and beverages.
Foods within each category fall under one of two lists: "higher nutritional value," which are OK as school offerings, and "lower nutritional value," which are not.
Foods on the acceptable list are lower in saturated fat, sugar, and sodium.
Following 'best practices'
The province said its revised policy would reflect the most recent evidence and best practices in school nutrition.
"The majority of the population, their sugar intake, most of it comes from sugary drinks," said Dr. Jennifer Russell, the province's chief medical officer of health.
"If we're trying to reduce the sugar consumption of Canadians in a general sense, then we would really want to target the drinks."
When she was a family doctor, Russell said, people would come into her office with chronic health issues such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
"Healthy eating is a huge contributor to those issues in terms of prevention," Russell said. "We know that unhealthy eating habits are the leading risk factors for chronic disease development."