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Dublin: 17°C Thursday 29 July 2021

Aaron McKenna: Ban the school tuck shop and watch childhood obesity plummet

The Department of Education has stopped short of taking a concrete step that would reduce the amount of junk food eaten by children in schools: banning junk food vending machines from schools.

Aaron McKenna

THE GOVERNMENT HAS an €8.5-million-a-year quango called Safefood that has been running a substantial public awareness campaign of late around the area of preventing obesity in childhood. You might have noticed some of their big billboard advertisements, pointing out the amount of sugar in a dilutable drinks or advising parents to “Just say no” to children begging for sweets.

As Safefood and other research has pointed out, about 60 per cent of Irish adults are obese or overweight; and the costs of obesity to the economy stand at around €1.9 billion per year. This is rising fast as we raise generations of ever fatter children.

Most of us don’t need to re-hear a lecture on the bad news that comes with being overweight or obese. It’s a fast way to an early grave in the worst cases, and a recipe for storing up various troubles for even those of us who fight a more modest Battle of the Bulge.

The younger problems start, the worse they’ll be – it’s common sense. And,as well as affecting the quality of life of those directly affected, it wreaks additional and unnecessary costs onto a healthcare system that is already struggling to deal with the massive influx of elderly as our population gets older.

Getting people to change their behaviours – not an easy task

Safefood and other bodies have been working on public awareness campaigns and pushing for celebrities to stop advertising sugary drinks and shops to remove sweets from the checkout isle. They are attempting to get people to change their behaviours, something that’s difficult to do.

The Department of Education is also attempting to tackle this problem, by promoting some further physical education in schools and presumably by having more stern lectures be given to kids about how they need to eat more apples.

The Department has stopped short, however, of taking a real and concrete step that would reduce the amount of junk food eaten by children in schools: banning junk food vending machines from schools.

Just like sweets at checkouts, these vending machines are well-positioned to deliver a strong commercial return, and the money raised by vending machines in schools are becoming a vital source of income in our chronically underfunded school system.

At the stroke of a pen we could remove vending machines from our schools, doing more to actually reduce the intake of fizzy drinks, chocolate and crisps that any number of informative leaflets and visits from health experts could discourage. But both the Minister for Education and the Minister for Children have demurred, claiming that they would issue ‘guidelines’ to schools but that they couldn’t possibly dictate to schools what goes in vending machines.

I find that a little bit of a cop out. The Minister for Education can dictate quite a bit to schools when it suits him, but on this matter of the health of our children he’s apparently powerless.

Issuing guidelines is the bureaucratic way of making work. The actual results of these guidelines will never be properly measured, mainly because they’re useless. You can’t walk up to a set of guidelines, pop in a two euro coin and get a 330ml can with enough sugar to help a kid along the way to an early and expensive death.

Helping to paper-over the cracks in the education budget

Schools are in a bind. The Department of Education ensures that its union buddies are well looked after, but for many schools the money they receive to actually keep the lights on falls well short of what’s needed. That’s why schools tap parents for so much money in ‘voluntary’ subscriptions each year. Vending machines are another source of much-needed cash in the battle to keep a school building operating.

The short-term win is money that helps the Department of Education paper-over the cracks in a sick education budget. The long-term cost is exponentially increasing costs in the Department of Health and in the economy generally. Every euro schools make from this stuff could be costing two, three or more in future costs. Penny wise, pound foolish.

It’s simple common sense. When I was in primary school we were barred from having fizzy drinks or sweets in our lunch boxes, except on special days at the end of terms for Christmas or the Summer holidays. When I went to secondary school, we had a canteen that sold all the good stuff. It probably won’t surprise you to know that the weekly intake of cans of coke and twix bars went up in secondary school.

The Department of Education and the Minister for Children respectively should be braver in their convictions and go ahead and bar sweet sales in schools. I’d almost go as far as to suggest that they take the unilateral decision that my very wise primary school did and adopt a policy of no sweets whatsoever in schools. If they can confiscate mobile phones and the like, they can confiscate cans of coke and at least reduce consumption from the levels it stands at when the school is actively making money from the sale of crap.

We know that excessive consumption of junk food is bad news. We are breaking our hearts trying to educate people about the dangers and change their behaviours. Our children are at the highest risk of developing long-term problems, and we are focusing on them in particular.

Why the hell then are we allowing the sale of the thing we think is so bad for them in school walls? G’wan, dear government; take a brave decision.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

Read: Tuck shop crackdown: Quinn to issue healthy eating guidelines for schools

Read: Ireland is eating more fast food as waistlines continue to grow…and grow

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