HSE call for ban on junk food ignored
Department of Education ignores wave of new calls from HSE and campaigners to remove vending machines from schools
Vending machines will not be banned from second-level schools despite fresh opposition from the HSE, which would support a veto on the sugary snack-filled machines as part of ongoing efforts to stem child obesity, the Sunday Independent can reveal.
The latest obesity trends from the HSE indicate that obesity is reducing and stabilising among seven and nine year olds. But levels are not falling among children from lower socio-economic groups or disadvantaged schools.
Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, director of human health and nutrition at Safefood - an all-island implementation body promoting food safety and healthy eating - told the Sunday Independent that unhealthy vending machines, nearby fast-food outlets, large portions and lack of parental intervention are all "part of the problem".
"When you come to secondary schools, eating healthy seems to lose prominence quite a lot, vending machines come in to it and children start going out to buy their lunch," she said.
"I think if parents are providing funding for this, they need to have an agreement with their teenagers as to what they'll buy or to at least discuss it with them," she said, adding that even healthy vending-machine options can often be high in calories.
"We have done research on 'health halo' type products, such as yoghurt or muesli bars, that are, in fact, very high in sugar content so you have to be wary. Just because it sounds nutritious, doesn't mean it is," she said.
This week, the HSE confirmed support for a ban on junk food in school vending machines. In a statement, a spokeswoman for the HSE said: "This is a matter for the Department of Education and Skills, however, the HSE would welcome a ban on junk food in school vending machines."
The HSE also supports fast-food exclusion zones around schools - a local authority guideline published in June 2013.
According to the Department of Education, "approximately 30pc of schools reported having a vending machine or school shop which sells unhealthy food". However, a spokesperson for the department stressed that there are no vending machines in primary schools and none will be installed in the future.
When asked whether Minister Jan O'Sullivan has any plans to ban vending machines, the spokeswoman said there are "currently no plans to ban the use of vending machines in second-level schools, or the sale of certain foods in such machines.
"In conjunction with other Government departments and agencies, the department's role is to advise schools on this matter. Bearing in mind that in such advice, schools have the autonomy to make the ultimate decision in this regard," she said.
"The guidance for post-primary schools on promoting healthy lifestyles, including through the appropriate use of vending machines, is currently being prepared in consultation with the Department of Health and the HSE," she said.
The department also said schools' efforts must be complemented by parents and the wider community in order to achieve successful outcomes for our students.
The latest vending machine figures represents a slight improvement on 2009 figures when 35pc of schools were in this category. In 2012 and 2009, some 64pc of schools reported having a facility for the sale of fresh fruit.
This year's Lifeskills survey, which will shortly be launched by Minister Jan O'Sullivan and Minister for Health Leo Varadkar, will provide a means of measuring progress in this area.
Although there are some green shoots in recent obesity trends, Dr Foley-Nolan is increasingly concerned that obesity levels are not falling in children from lower socio-economic groups.
"From a social class point of view, the 2013 figures show that 29pc of boys and 38pc of girls from less-privileged backgrounds are overweight or obese compared to 19pc of boys and 18pc of girls from well-educated groups," she said.
She said reasons for this include: distance from shops that are selling more nutritious items like good value fruit and veg, actual recognition of children being overweight as "being normal" and lack of access to play facilities in disadvantaged areas.
"There are lots of existing outlets where very little has been done to provide healthy options other than mayonnaise-laden very large burgers or dinner rolls. I think that is quite an issue in terms of secondary schools," she said.
Another emerging issue is access to school facilities outside school hours. "If they have playing fields, the community should have access after school. Obviously, there are going to be insurance issues but they are public facilities."
According to the World Health Organization, Ireland has the highest rate of overweight and obesity among EU member states for children under five years at 27pc.
In 2013, Safefood launched a three-year campaign to communicate practical parental-solutions to tackle the everyday habits associated with excess weight in childhood.
The next and final phase of the campaign is about "sleep and screen", Dr Foley-Nolan exclusively revealed.
"It's about over-use of screen time and screen availability for children, even in their bedrooms, impacting on the level of physical activity and the amount of sleep they get," she said, adding that cutting down on screen time will be aimed at all schools, but the ideal is about "developing good habits earlier on".
"The home has to be the source. Obviously, schools have a responsibility, but home is where the seeds are grown," said Dr Foley-Nolan."It is the bank of mummy and daddy that is buying the junk food in schools, they are the ones paying the bills, so apart from anything else, they have a say on what their hard-earned money is being spent on."
Meanwhile, Minster for Children James Reilly has said he would back proposals for a sugar tax.
Yesterday, a survey by the Irish Independent revealed that many children's meals contain over 3g of salt - the equivalent of more than six bags of crisps.
Safefood research shows that children show signs of obesity as early as three years of age. "This didn't happen overnight, so we're not going to have marvellous news in a short space of time," said Dr Foley-Nolan.