Should schools ban vending machines, asks Hong Kong parent worried about daughter's snacking

A Hong Kong parent writes: I have a strong belief that eating good food is important but since my daughter started high school this year it’s been very hard to supervise and keep track of what she’s eating. She wants to eat at the tuck shop with friends, and although there are some healthy options they sell a lot of junk food, too. Also there are vending machines at school that sell confectionery, crisps and fizzy drinks. Don’t schools need to ban these?

I am in total agreement with you concerning vending machines. On the one hand, schools are teaching about the importance of healthy eating as part of the curriculum, and on the other, overpriced junk food is constantly on display, tempting students.

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In a world where childhood obesity has become a major problem it seems hypocritical to sell this type of food in schools. Unfortunately, vending machines often make money for educational institutions.

A primary school in Britain, determined to promote healthy eating, has gone as far as banning certain foods in pupils’ lunchboxes. If more than one item of unhealthy food, such as crisps, biscuits and cakes, are brought to school they can be removed by staff. Although this caused a backlash from some parents who believed things had been taken too far, the principal stood her ground in a quest to ensure the pupils had a healthy, balanced diet. Fizzy or flavoured drinks were also banned as part of the “food and drink policy”.

I’m horrified at the snacks and meals that some children take to school. One boy in my class was given a packet of biscuits for his lunch, and another a cold burger and fries from a well known junk food chain. I often wonder who has packed their lunchbox and whether parents actually know what it contains.

I can understand your feelings about losing a certain amount of control, but peer pressure is very strong at this age, and being socially inclusive (eating at the tuck shop with her friends, for example) will be very important to her.

Now she is starting to make her own decisions, try to show that you trust her to make good food choices. This will help her to feel grown up and responsible. Inevitably parents have to let go at some point. If they are too overbearing, some children rebel. Making food into a major issue generally has a negative effect.

As you obviously feel that your daughter’s school could do more to encourage a healthy eating policy, you could discuss your concerns with the principal. You could join the parent-teacher association and get other parents on board in addressing this within the school.

Try to come up with some inventive fundraising ideas such as organising healthy food stalls after school and for school fairs, selling attractive options such as fruit skewers and home-made healthy biscuits.

“Nude food” days, where reusable food containers are encouraged and wrapping or packets are banned, not only encourage pupils to consume healthy food, as most junk food is pre-packaged, but raises awareness of environmental issues.

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These days there is little excuse for parents not knowing the facts. Well-publicised research shows that consistently eating food high in salt, sugar and saturated fat significantly increases the risk of obesity, cancer and other serious diseases. Unfortunately, junk food is addictive and additives, preservatives and food colourings found in these foods can lead to hyperactivity in some children, which affects their behaviour and their ability to concentrate in the classroom.

Junk food also causes tooth and gum decay. Sugar-laden fizzy drinks, sold in most vending machines, are particularly bad for teeth. Some children consume these on a daily basis, sometimes buying them without parental knowledge.

Youngsters who have little guidance or monitoring by parents are in much more danger of falling into bad habits, and it can be difficult if they are surrounded by friends who eat poor quality food. As an adult I appreciate my parents’ persistence in giving me healthy snacks at school when some of my friends were constantly eating confectionery, only to develop mouthfuls of fillings by the time they were teenagers.

I’m reminded of a well-known television chef who took it on himself to make British school meals more healthy, insisting on lunches being prepared from scratch with fresh ingredients that included more salad and vegetables. Unfortunately, many Hong Kong schools do not have room for on-site kitchens and dedicated dining rooms to put this into practice.

Will standing desks in classrooms help kids to learn or encourage them to mess about more?

But hopefully they can work together with parents to make sure food provision is as healthy as possible.

Julie McGuire is a former Hong Kong primary-school teacher