Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Public-funded provision of food

In the year leading up to the recent general election, each of the parties I was choosing between came out in support of taxpayer-funded lunches in schools - to my dismay.

I lack faith in the ability of any of them to identify and provide healthy food. If you’ve ever endured a stay in a New Zealand public hospital, you’ll have sampled the type of fare I anticipate: predominantly refined-carbs (lots of low-quality bread, white rice, pasta), doused in salt, greasy, vegetables overcooked, any raw vegetables or fruit old and limp, high-sugar drinks such as fruit juice, high-sugar dessert and snacks. Hospital administrators don’t seem to have heard dieticians’ advice to restrict sugary treats to no more than once a week. Their menu could be designed to slow patient recovery and develop unhealthy habits.

Any hope that the government might do better when serving school children is extinguished by a look at the Year 6-7 Food Technology curriculum. Almost every child in the country completes this cooking course. What an opportunity to introduce a captive young audience to delicious, healthy meals! But at my local intermediate school, which otherwise offers an outstanding Technicraft programme, almost every recipe is based on white flour usually accompanied by sugar: scones, biscuits, cake, cheese straws, bread, macaroni cheese, hamburgers in buns, fruit and marshmallow kebabs, pancakes, sweetened muesli.

I suggest cleaning up our hospital menus, Food Technology curriculum and breakfast-in-schools menus before expanding public food provision to school lunches. While the government continues to fund unhealthy, processed food, the government is part of the problem. It may even be negatively influencing the diet that citizens choose to eat at home: children and adults who haven’t studied nutrition might reasonably assume that food provided by a hospital or school is a healthy template to follow.

Let’s offer healthy food, as defined by evidence-based science: menus dominated by fresh vegetables and fruits, with legumes, whole grains, raw nuts and seeds. Bread included as an occasional side dish rather than a staple, and made from wholemeal flours with added whole or kibbled grains and without additives. Conspicuous in their absence: refined sugar and drinks other than water.

My appeal to political parties aiming to improve children’s nutrition is to let evidence of benefit direct spending. This may mean lunches in schools is moved off the agenda altogether, perhaps replaced by school and community gardens or the discontinuance of GST.

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