Are the proposed new health food norms for school cafeterias over the top?

A proposed new directive banning the sale of junk foods in schools has elicited strong protests from students and headmasters alike. The list of banned foods compiled by the Education Ministry got high praise from nutrition experts, but schools themselves say it is so strict it would leave school cafeterias selling nothing but apples and mineral water.

Illustrative photo: ČTIllustrative photo: ČT There are few places where junk food sells as well as in schools and in recent years health experts have increasingly criticized the food that Czech schoolchildren consume. Soft-drinks, chocolate bars and potato chips abound and many children skip breakfast in favour of a snack from the school vending machine in the course of the morning.

The civic initiative For a Healthy School Environment and others like it recently succeeded in getting the authorities to make a move to change this and the Education Ministry in cooperation with health food experts compiled a long list of banned foods and substances. While nutrition experts have high praise for the result, students and headmasters alike say the proposed norms go way over the top and are utterly unrealistic. Štepan Kment, president of the Association of Secondary School Students, told Czech Television the authors of the new norms were overzealous.

Illustrative photo: ČTIllustrative photo: ČT “It really does not make any sense to ban things like muesli sticks and cookies in school cafeterias and vending machines when school canteens serve things like meatballs and pizza. It would just drive the cafeterias and vending machine owners into bankruptcy.”

The long list of banned foods includes foods high in sugar, energy drinks, caffeine but also dressings, mayo, mustard and ketchup which are traditionally used in sandwiches. It also bans fruit yogurts, processed cheeses, sweet and salty pastry, unhealthy additives and artificial sweeteners. Jiří Kuhn, head of the Association of Grammar Schools told Czech TV it goes too far.

Minister of Education, Youth and Sport Kateřina Valachová, photo: the Office of the Government of the Czech RepublicMinister of Education, Youth and Sport Kateřina Valachová, photo: the Office of the Government of the Czech Republic “These days you will find artificial sweeteners everywhere. If the norms are strictly adhered to I could say – with a bit of an exaggeration – that the school cafeteria could only sell mineral water and apples."

Secondary school students are writing an open letter to the education minister and collecting signatures under a petition calling for the norms to be modified or restricted to primary schools only. They also think healthy foods in schools should be subsidized and school canteens should also be made to cook healthier school lunches. The Education Ministry has said it will take note of the feedback from schools and consider amendments before passing on the proposed norms to the government’s legislative council.