The Liberal Party announced its preventative health policy on the 3rd of September and the ACT Greens and the Labor party announced their school canteen policies on the 12th and 13th of September respectively.

The ACT Government announced that if re-elected in the ACT election they will invest $1 million to school canteens. Minister for Education and Training, Chris Bourke said that that Labor Party will make sure children have access to the highest quality canteen options.

“The Labor Government will upgrade canteen services in public schools and introduce an online order system for parents to make healthy and nutritious lunch choices for their children,” Mr Bourke said.

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“Parents will be able to feel confident that they are aware and have control over what their children are eating or not eating at school.”

Greens spokesperson for Education and Training, Meredith Hunter announced that the Greens would commit $500,000 would be allocated for canteen upgrades if elected on October 20.

“Many school canteens have difficulty providing healthy food to children because of a lack of refrigeration and cooking facilities, and their reliance on “heat and serve” facilities,” Ms Hunter said.

“We need to give our school canteens the capacity they need to provide better, nutritional food.”

Jena Dobie, from the ACT Parents and Citizens Council (P&C) says that although everybody would agree that healthy eating for children is imperative, the fact that canteens are still businesses cannot be forgotten.

“Yes healthy options is definitely something that everybody wants, but to forget that at the end of the day they are a business that is operating under very tight restrictions, they need a bit of help because otherwise we’re going to lose them all together,” Ms Dobie said.

The push by the government and the Greens party for healthier food options at school canteens has left many in a tight financial situation.

Since the announcement of these policies, Chris Bourke and a number of representatives from the Education & Training Directorate (ETD), ACT Health, ACT P & C, ACT School Canteens Association and Nutrition Australia have established a High Level Taskforce Working Group on Canteens. The aim of the Task force is to look at a range of issues, both financial and nutritional and report back to the Minister before the end of the year.

The ACT Greens have also announced that they will support the current the existing School Canteens High Level Taskforce for infrastructure and explore social enterprise employment opportunities, by committing $100,000 per annum.

Ms Hunter says the arrangement between Merici College and Black Mountain School where the Black Mountain School’s hospitality classes use the produce from Merici College’s kitchen garden to cook meals, which are sold at the Merici canteen, is a good example of social enterprise options that should be explored by others.

“The ACT Greens believe social enterprises could assist in solving the problem,” she said.

“Many canteens have had difficulty continuing to open with many closing down completely. We want to support the reopening of these canteens as well as provide them with the necessary options and upgrades.”

ACT Labor already announced in August that they will make available $500,000 over four years to establish a fund for all schools who agree to phase out the sale of sugary drinks. In September they stated that if re-elected ACT Labor will set a “zero growth” target of obesity rates, hoping that the current rates will be the peak for Canberra.

However, a number of Canberra citizens are critical of the proposed canteen policies. A post on the RiotACT sparked a number of responses claiming that often is not what children are eating at school that is making them fat, as canteens have always sold unhealthy food yet there was no obesity epidemic. SMH Journalist, Melissa Davey wrote last week that 20 percent of children are overweight or obese before they start kindergarten. According to the University of Sydney study, 30 percent of the overweight children surveyed had a television in their bedrooms and almost half ate dinner in front of the television more than three times a week.

According to research completed in 2007/08 by the Productivity Commission, the number of Australian children who are overweight or obese has been steadily increasing over the years.

In March 2011, Planet Ark commissioned an independent study to investigate childhood interaction with nature. The research shows that there has been a dramatic shift in childhood activity from outdoor play to indoor activity in the space of one generation.  The study produced some alarming results including 1 in 10 children today play outside once a week or less and 76 percent of children cannot identify common Australian trees like wattle and bottlebrush.

The ACT Government and the Greens’ children’s health policies for the upcoming election are the latest in a raft of policies proposed over the years to curb childhood obesity. The ACT Liberal party however, believes prevention is better than a cure. Shadow Health Minister, Jeremy Hanson said that while he does support healthy food options in school canteens, the ACT Liberals would take a different approach.

“By committing $1 million each year for preventative health programs and creating a preventative health taskforce, we can work on prevention in the future which will have a long term effect.” Mr Hanson said.

The ACT Greens have also announced $366,000 to ‘bring back the bubbler’ in which they will set-up 20 more drinking fountains in town centres and other public places around the capital. Greens spokeswoman Caroline Le Couteur says it would make Canberra residents healthier and help reduce waste from plastic bottles.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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