Schools still serving unhealthy food despite provincial policy

The group that funds many of Nova Scotia's school breakfast programs says there is room for improvement when it comes to serving healthy food in our schools.

"What's served in the cafeteria is not consistent," says Margo Riebe-Butt, the executive director of Nourish Nova Scotia, a non-profit organization. "It's not creating that healthy school environment that we are really striving for through that policy."

Riebe-Butt is talking about the Food and Nutrition Policy for Nova Scotia Public Schools introduced in 2006.

The policy states that foods with "minimum nutrition" — those high in sugar, fat, salt and caffeine — can only be served once or twice a month as part of a special function. Fundraisers must only use food listed as having maximum or moderate nutrition.

"You can have a great policy, but if it's not implemented, then it's just a piece of paper," she told Information Morning Cape Breton.

A new University of British Columbia study published last month ranks the dietary intake of Nova Scotia students during the school day as second-to-last among provinces in Canada. Only Newfoundland and Labrador ranked lower. However, the data is from 2004, before Nova Scotia implemented its food and nutrition policy.

"We see time and time again that schools are using cookie dough and pies as fundraisers, which sends a bad message, which is not consistent with the policy," Riebe-Butt says. "Schools that are still using licorice as a reward in the classroom, or Skittles for teaching math."

Comes down to money

"There's no reason non-nutritive, white bread garlic fingers are on a menu in any school at any time of day," said Riebe-Butt, "but unfortunately it comes down to affordability."

Debbie Madore agrees. She's a dietitian with the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board and sits on the Nourish Nova Scotia board.

Madore said some cafeterias are run by private catering companies, which don't receive public funding. Others are run by schools.

"If the cafeteria wants to make money, you may see the baked chicken nuggets and fries because the children will buy it," she said. "If they have a different meal it may not go over as well. And then there is the worry that the cafeteria is not making money so it's not going to be here.

"A school cafeteria has to at least break even in order for the school to keep it," Madore said.

She would like to see schools receive funding to support nutritious foods.

Positive change

But Madore said during her 18 years with the school board, she has seen great improvements.

"We've pulled out deep fryers, put in convection ovens. We don't sell and serve any carbonated beverages."

Riebe-Butt says parental involvement can make a big difference. She suggests parents start a nutrition committee or a healthy school program.

"They can really drive a difference in the schools."