One of the few preventive health initiatives on the table so far in Tasmania’s 1 May election, says Tasmanian public health researcher and consultant Miriam Vandenberg, is a promise from Labor to introduce government-funded healthy lunches in government primary schools.
This $31.8 million initiative would “improve school attendance and lead to better educational outcomes and healthier lives for future generations of Tasmanian children”, said Labor Leader Rebecca White, announcing the proposal.
While urging a much wider suite of preventive health pledges from both major parties, Vandenberg welcomes the school lunches proposal and shares some critical and wide-reaching lessons from a recent four week trial in one Tasmanian school.
Miriam Vandenberg writes:
With a Tasmanian state election looming, it’s disheartening to see – yet again – very little attention to preventive health.
While the complex problems in Tasmanian’s health treatment system cannot be denied, it is politicians’ inability to take long-term action to prevent many health problems that is not only disappointing, but will continue to cost the state dearly in the long run.
Many of us have read (at least versions of) Irish surgeon Denis Parsons Burkitt’s analogy: “If people are constantly falling off a cliff, you could place ambulances under the cliff or build a fence on the top of the cliff. We are placing all too many ambulances under the cliff.”
Not only does prevention make sense economically, it also improves people’s quality of life: reason enough to make prevention a priority for Tasmania.
Tasmania is urgently in need of more investment in chronic disease prevention initiatives, as well as policies that address the social determinants of health and health inequalities relating to adequate income, housing, transport and employment opportunities.
Limited early impact
But with less than two weeks to go until the state election, let’s hope that all is not lost. Indeed, I note that earlier this week, the Labor Party announced $31.8 million for a healthy school lunch initiative to feed all government primary school children, in the interest of improving education and health outcomes into the future.
This is an issue close to my heart. From 2016 to 2020, I worked with a small public primary school located in an under-resourced area in Tasmania to try and improve the nutritional quality of school lunchboxes.
A number of strategies were implemented by a team of very dedicated staff and volunteers, ranging from education strategies to healthy school policies.
While there were many positives arising from these activities, including improved relationships between parents/carers and the school, our research found there was limited impact on the nutritional quality of school lunchboxes.
Through annual lunchbox audits we found that most students continued to have discretionary foods in their lunchboxes, in some cases in large quantities despite our best efforts.
Parents/carers told us that they found it extremely difficult to provide healthy food in their children’s lunchboxes when so many unhealthy snacks were available in the supermarkets, and that children had significant power over parental decision-making.
Lessons from a wider trial
As a result, in the final year of the program (2020), amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, we trialled a whole of school lunch service program.
Over four weeks, staff and parent/carer volunteers prepared almost 1,700 individual nutritious lunches for students. The trial identified many important learnings about the potential of such a school lunch program for nutritional and social wellbeing.
Few students refused the school lunch meals and most tried foods they had never eaten before. But while some preferred the school lunch program over bringing a lunchbox from home, others weren’t ready to say goodbye to packaged snacks.
Parents/carers valued the school lunch program for its convenience, cost savings and positive effects on children and most parents/carers said they would be willing to pay for a school lunch program in the future.
School staff perceived that the program had a positive impact on healthy eating behaviour, food security, school attendance, behaviour in the playground and social wellbeing, but cautioned against implementing a school lunch ‘welfare’ model.
They also raised concerns about the impost on teaching time, students’ resistance to new taste experiences and the amount of food waste.
Our experiences highlight some important findings that can help strengthen Tasmanian Labor’s proposed school lunch policy. They include:
School lunch programs should have a strong focus on parent/carer and community engagement and aim to be more than simply a food service model.
We delivered a low-cost whole-of-school lunch program with meal costs of less than $2 per child per day, but also built volunteer parents/carers knowledge and skills, boosted their confidence and gave many a sense of purpose and belonging that was otherwise missing.Schools should be better resourced with dedicated community engagement officers, who can work alongside lunch program staff and volunteers to involve parents/carers in the program and build partnerships across the community. Local food procurement is another opportunity that could be part of school lunch programs in this way.
School lunch programs can provide training and employment opportunities.
Although funding for our program has ceased, the program continues to operate thanks to a small team of dedicated parent/carer volunteers. Many of these volunteers put in long hours and they are also often unemployed.School lunch programs present important employment and career building opportunities that should be explored – after all, having a job is also good for your health.
Invest in evaluation and research.
Overall, our program delivered some important indicators of success, in line with other research, however as the program was only trialled for four weeks, it is recommended that further refinement, implementation and evaluation be undertaken to explore the value of this type of initiative for enhancing student and the wider school community’s health and wellbeing in the longer term.International literature in this area tells us that many questions about the nutritional and educational outcomes associated with school lunch programs remain.
As the final week of the election campaign approaches, let’s hope we are offered more policy initiatives that aim to improve nutritional wellbeing and education outcomes for Tasmanians.
See previous Croakey articles on the Tasmanian 2021 election
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