Monday, February 2, 2015

Canteen Foods Association-An Australian idea for food service in schools

Discussion about school lunch programs is a part of the continuous effort to improve the attendance in schools as well as to provide more nutritious foods to children away from home because of economic as well as other social factors. canteens in the school premises is not a common phenomenon in India but almost all schools in the US as well as in Australia have privately run catering contractors who offer cheap subsidized foods to the students. Colleges in India, however have this privately run canteen system where students can spend their off time for having some light foods and beverages. But the type of products served in these canteens is not regulated though there is supposed to be an overseeing committee to enforce quality, hygiene and sanitation and good manufacturing practices. In Australia where there are about 3000 schools food is offered in the school premises by members of a coalition called Australian School Canteens Association which oversees buying as well as food service practices under the school foods policies of the government. Since unlike Indian canteens where most foods are prepared in house, in Australia processed products supplied by food products industry are offered in the canteens. Only those manufacturers who are approved can supply foods to these canteens, thus exercising some control over the quality and safety of products purchased by the students. This is an interesting situation worth consideration in other countries also. Read further about it below: 

"Big food companies are muscling in on the lucrative school canteen industry to promote and sell their products to students. The canteen association, ASCA, which uses its buying power to deliver savings to more than 3000 Australian schools and canteens, estimates the industry is worth almost $1 billion. Association chief executive David Edwards said food companies did not make huge profits in schools but used canteens to promote their products to young audiences. "It is an important business. Some companies do it for brand recognition. If kids buy their products when they are young then they will probably continue buying it as adults." The association represents about 750 canteens in Victorian government, independent and Catholic schools and tries to deliver savings to schools through its buying power. All profit is donated to charity. About three food companies approach the association every week hoping to strike a deal. Increasing the profits of canteens and ensuring products met healthy food guidelines were the association's main aims, Mr Edwards said. In 2013 the association severed its ties with Coca-Cola and switched to Schweppes because "they had a healthier range of products", he said. Freedom Foods struck a deal with the association recently to supply schools with nut-free snack bars, which have been awarded a score of four out of five under a new health star rating system. Marketing director Rebecca Carson said students were incredibly involved in their buying decisions, and she hoped the deal helped the company expand. "Not only are our bars healthy but importantly they are also nut-free. Allergies in schools are a huge issue." Students who bought the company's snack bars at the canteen could then ask for them to be included in their lunch boxes, she said.An education department spokesman said clear guidelines were provided to canteen operators about what should be offered through a traffic light system, which categorises food into three categories according to their nutritional value."

The allegation that big food companies with muscle and clout with the government can force the Association to buy their products without giving a damn to the health guidelines may be genuine because world over powerful industries do have the necessary wherewithal to influence policies through their links with political administrators. Such distortion can cause double damage due to not only supply of "bad" foods but also because of brand building potential through such exposure to these foods in the canteens. But if the Association can run without succumbing to supplier pressure that is the best thing the student community can have. In Australia fortunately there are clear government buying guidelines which stipulate that only foods with traffic light symbols on the labels of foods that imply high healthy scores can be catered in school canteens. Thus not leaving the freedom to the suppliers to buy and sell any food in the school precludes corrupt influences that can distort the system to the detriment of the student community. It is time in India also the existing canteens in all large schools and colleges are brought under one umbrella and responsibility for controlling the profile of products catered is vested in that organization which has to be privately or cooperatively formed for the purpose. It is imperative that over a period of time canteen food portfolio is altered to reduce the proportion of in-house made products and include more and more centrally manufactured branded food with assured health values. Industry must evolve a separate nutrition rating system and offer highest rated products to the school canteens. Government can also give a boost to local food industries by helping them to link with school canteens provided they can make products with high safety and nutritional ratings.

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