A number of schools, particularly those with cafeterias run by third parties, are failing to serve up nutritious and healthy lunches, according to a report released Tuesday by Nova Scotia's auditor general.
A survey of 26 schools in four of the province's seven regional centres for education found only 40 per cent of schools complied with the food and nutrition policy set by the Department of Education.
"We found inconsistencies in the nutritional value of the foods offered to students, and the majority of schools tested are not complying with the provincial policy," Auditor General Kim Adair told reporters during a briefing following the report's release. "The department doesn't know if healthy foods are served in schools because of the lack of monitoring."
The schools surveyed are in the Halifax, Chignecto-Central, South Shore and Annapolis Valley regional centres for education. The report said they were selected for the survey based on their location, whether they are in an area that "may experience a higher level of food insecurity," grades taught, and the type of cafeteria services offered.
Profit-driven cafeterias fare the worst
Cafeterias run by private operators only met the provincial standard nine per cent of the time. School-run cafeterias complied half the time, while those run at the regional level did the best, meeting standards 83 per cent of the time.
"Based on our discussions with administrators, we concluded that the main reason this may be happening is because third-party providers are typically profit driven," noted the report. "They therefore would be likely to focus on what food items will sell, not necessarily providing the healthiest food options.
"Various cafeteria staff we spoke with during visits to third-party and school-run cafeterias indicated the healthier foods often do not sell."
The report said those cafeterias "were more resistant" to offer those foods as a result.
What children are served or choose to eat is important, according to the report, because of rising obesity rates and related chronic diseases and health conditions related to being overweight.
"The obesity rate across Canada has tripled in the last three decades, and Nova Scotia youth are trending in terms of the obesity rate at a higher rate than the national average," said Adair. "And the projected future health-care costs are in the billions."
Healthy food policy introduced in 2006
The provincial government created a healthy food policy in 2006 with full implementation expected in all school by 2009.
According to the report, "this policy has not been updated even though there have been two updates to the Canada Food Guide" since then.
"The intent of the policy is that a child in the school system, no matter where they are in the province, whether it's Yarmouth, Cape Breton or HRM, that they all have the opportunity to have a healthy food choice when they're at the school," said Adair. "That is not happening."
Auditors gathered information for the report between Sept. 1, 2018, and June 30, 2021.
On Tuesday, Education Minister Becky Druhan suggested the situation in schools has already changed.
"I will say that the auditor general report was done at a time when schools look very different than they do right now," Druhan told CBC News. "It was done in the height of COVID when we had different restrictions, when we had barriers around what we could provide and how we could provide it.... So certainly schools look different now than they did a year and a half ago."
South Shore suggested as model for other schools
One regional centre for education stood out from the rest in Adair's report.
The auditor general and her team praised the South Shore Regional Centre of Education for running and overseeing its school cafeterias properly.
Although the 23 school cafeterias under the regional centre of education's supervision operate at a combined deficit of $245,000 a year, the report noted the "extensive processes for complying and monitoring the application of the food and nutrition policy."
A nutritionist oversees the entire food program in the region, cafeteria workers receive professional development, and schools roll out salad bars as a healthy option twice a week.
The auditor general has made 10 recommendations to Druhan's department, including:
Using the South Shore model as a guide for the rest of the province.
Creating a provincial food procurement system.
Updating the food and nutrition policy to reflect the current Canada Food Guide.
Having someone in each region responsible for overseeing food services and vending machines.
Improving the monitoring process to ensure schools are serving healthier meals.
The department has accepted the report and agreed to implement all 10 recommendations.
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