Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Ontario's School Food and Beverage Policy—Update

In a previous post, I took a look at the new School Food and Beverage Policy slated to take effect in Ontario schools in September 2011. Although I came to the conclusion that the policy is well-intended and a good first step in the process of improving the nutritional quality of school food, one particular aspect puzzled me: the new guidelines allow entrees (examples given are frozen pizza, sandwiches, hot dogs) with sodium levels of (up to) 960 mg to be counted among the healthier "sell most" category of foods, which must comprise 80% of foods sold in schools. I found it hard to believe that government dietitians would consider food with such a high level of sodium to be "healthy," given that the "tolerable upper intake level" or UL for sodium for children ranges from 1500 mg to 2300 mg. Confused—and suspicious that permissible sodium levels for "healthier" entrees might have something to do with schools' dubious practice of fundraising through "Pizza Lunches"—I decided to send an email to ministry officials asking for clarification. A few days ago, I received a response from a representative of the Healthy Schools and Student Well-Being Unit at the Ministry of Education. With respect to the issue of allowable sodium levels in "healthy" entrees, she wrote:
The sodium criteria in the standards are based on the allowable sodium content for Disease Risk Reduction Claims with respect to saturated and trans fats outlined in the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s Guide to Food Labelling and Advertising (2004). A Disease Risk Reduction Claims, one of the categories of health claims, is a statement that links the food or a part of a food to reducing the risk of developing a diet-related disease (e.g., cancer, hypertension) in the context of the total diet.
I responded to this (non-)explanation as follows:
This is a rather confusing answer to a straightforward question: should a child's entree containing 960 mg of sodium (per serving) be considered "healthy"? The new School Food and Beverage Policy says yes.
I'll let you know if and when I receive a reply to my second letter. I suspect, though, that the real explanation for the weak sodium standards is to be found in another part of the email I received from the ministry official. Describing the provenance of the new school food policy, the Healthy Schools representative wrote:
The School Food and Beverage Policy was developed by the Ministry of Education, in collaboration with the Ministries of Health Promotion and Sport, Children and Youth Services and Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and with the input from representatives of the education, health and the food industry sectors. [emphasis mine]

(See also, Ontario's new School Food and Beverage Policy.)


  1. Because it's only fair that the food industry should have a say on the issue of whether something is healthy! Just like military contractors should of course have a role in deciding our foreign policy, no?

    I bet it would be very enlightening to know who was actually on that committee.

  2. Hmm. You've given me an idea. I want to know which representatives from the "food industry" sector provided input. And what they actually said. This kind of information should be readily available to the public in a democracy, no? (And you're right, why should food industry reps even be invited to the table in the first place?)

  3. And who are the representatives of the "education and health" sectors? Or the Agriculture or Rural Affairs ministry? And how many of the committee members have any experience in evaluating nutritional claims or dietary advice? And, if lack of that experience is not disqualifying, why did the Ordinary Parent sector not get a representative?