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.