Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ontario's new School Food and Beverage Policy

As I made clear in a previous post, I am no fan of the ubiquitous "Pizza Lunch" fundraiser in Ontario's public schools. My principal objection is that kids eat far too much commercial pizza as it is. When I was a kid, no one served pizza at birthday parties; many kids (me included) didn't even like it, mainly because industrial pizza, which is the kind served most often at schools and parties, is simply boring, blah food: salt dressed up in dough, stringy cheese substance and tomato sauce. Nowadays, kids' palates have been trained from a young age to like humdrum salty foods. (My children initially disliked pizza, but after the umpteenth birthday party, their palates succumbed to peer pressure, and now they like it.)

Given my feelings about Junk Lunch, as I dubbed it in my previous post, how could I not be pleased with the newly announced provincial School Food and Beverage Policy? This is how the policy works (from the ministry's press release):
The nutrition standards make it easy for schools to determine which foods they can and cannot sell. Candy, energy drinks and fried foods are among the items that will no longer be sold in schools. In addition, 80 per cent of the new school menu must include products with the highest levels of essential nutrients and lowest amounts of fat, sugar and sodium. This includes fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grain breads. As well, 20 per cent of the new menu may include products that have slightly higher amounts of fat, sugar, and sodium. These items include bagels and cheese.
So far so good. It's difficult to disagree with a policy whose goal is the improvement of the nutritional quality of food sold in schools. But will the new standards prove to be the death knell for the hated (by me) Pizza Lunch?

Probably not. For one thing, the policy allows for 10 "special event" days during which less healthy foods can be sold on school premises. I can't prove it, but I would bet that this exemption was granted in recognition of schools' deeply ingrained habit of fund raising via Pizza Lunches. My daughters' school, for instance, holds Pizza Lunches every other week which, given the school calendar and holiday schedule, amounts to around twenty Pizza Lunches per year. So, under the new rules, ten of these "special events" would be permitted. That would be ten too many in my view.

But the special events exemption is not the only aspect of the new policy that concerns me. When one looks closely at the actual standards being applied in the "healthier foods" (80%) category, it becomes clear that the bar for "healthy" has not been set particularly high. Consider the standard for sodium, for example. The new policy (as laid out in the ministry's "quick reference" guide) states that in order for "entrees" such as "frozen pizza, sandwiches, pasta or hot dogs" to qualify as part of the 80% category, they must contain less than or equal to 960 mg sodium per serving. That's a lot of sodium for a child's lunch entree (i.e., not including sides or beverage). After all, the total recommended sodium intake is 1,200 mg per day for children ages 4-8, and 1,500 mg for children 9 and up. (See here.)

Even more troubling is the fact that the new sodium limit is relatively easy for pizza lunch suppliers to comply with—or rather to claim that they are in compliance with. Pizza Pizza has already circulated press releases stating that their pizza complies with the new Ontario rules governing food sold in schools in terms of trans fat, sodium, protein content, etc. When it comes to sodium, however, this claim is misleading. According to the nutritional information on their website, a slice of Pizza Pizza plain cheese pizza contains 580-590 mg of sodium; thus, two slices contain 1160 mg sodium, an amount that clearly exceeds the new provincial standards. The question is, how many children who enroll in pizza lunch programs eat just one slice of pizza? Our school offers children (for different prices) a choice of one, two, or three slices of pizza. From what I gather, some of the youngest children—in Grades 1 or 2—opt for the one-slice option, but the vast majority of students participating in the program choose the two- or three-slice options. (And need I add that the "snack" offered with the pizza is a commercial cookie or chips, which piles on even more sodium?)

My point here is not really to quibble about how and why pizza—or the fundraisers that revolve around this particular junk food—does or does not fit into the new 80% (healthier) or 20% (less healthy) categories. There is a larger point to be made: instead of trying to tinker with existing practices to render them compliant with new (not very exacting) ministry standards, schools should consider using the opportunity of new standards to inaugurate completely different programs. Scrap the Pizza Lunch! End the questionable practice of partnering with fast food companies for fund raising. Instead of Pizza Lunches, why not hold Gourmet Lunches, in which schools expose children to healthy foods from a variety of cultures? The possibilities are endless, but they require that we—school boards, administrators, parents—kick the habit: that is, that we break, once and for all, our unhealthy addiction to fast, easy and cheap food for kids.


  1. You've made me think. I'm always relieved when special lunches come up because I don't have to send anything (i.e. I'm lazy), but you raise a good point: why can't they do something healthy? This connects to another major pet peeve of mine: it's cheaper to buy junk food than healthy food. Ugh.

  2. Ironicmom: Trust me, I'm also secretly pleased when I don't have to send a lunch. But I'm paying for these "special" lunches, and I'd be willing to pay more for a healthy special lunch. Part of my problem with Pizza Lunch is that it's part of the larger problem of the normalization of junk food in kids' lives. I think we need to stop making junk food a treat. One thing we're trying to do in our household is take our kids to better restaurants (i.e., ones that don't specifically cater to kids). The girls order from the adult menu, and we've found that they are actually quite willing to try new things because it's a treat just to be going out for dinner. But you're right, it's a lot more expensive than MacDonalds. (Thank God for doggie bags!)

  3. Does this policy govern fundraisers outside of school hours? Because between our two big fundraisers and their attendant bake sales, and Freezie Friday (which I don't love for the litter it causes, but I wouldn't say a Freezie once a week is a nutritional tragedy) we're going to blow through our 10 days PDQ. (We don't have pizza lunches at our school.)

    You know why they don't have gourmet lunches - because pizza is cheap and kids like it, so it's an easy sell. Also it's very straightforward logistically - no utensils, no need to sit at a table. If you tried to do gourmet you'd spend a fortune on curry or Chinese food or falafel or whatever, plus bowls and utensils, and three kids would eat it. The rest would go in the bin along with your profits.

    This is yet another example of heavy-handed rules taking the place of common sense, which is sadly not very common. Argh.

  4. Amy — There is an organic butcher I know who provides organic lunches (not necessarily gourmet) to schools, and from what he's told me it's a mutually beneficial arrangement, so I do think alternatives to pizza lunch are doable. (And not all kids like Pizza—mine had to learn to like it.)

    The new rules may strike you as heavy-handed, but as I tried to point out, they contain so many loopholes that I think you'll find it will be business as usual at most schools. Therein lies the problem for me, but I certainly don't expect everyone to agree with me on this.

    As for your initial question, I do think the policy covers fundraisers held outside of school hours if they are held on school property. (Not 100 % certain about this.)

  5. Great information about food and beverage policy.