The one where Mamamia asked Sarah Wilson what's so wrong with Paddlepops.

For parents, school is about learning and preparing our kids for life.

For kids that’s all an aside – school is about lunchtime.

Tag, handball, chasies and the big one – the canteen.

Do you remember the thrill of being given 50c from Mum to spend at the canteen?

A Sunnyboy and a BIG M Strawberry milk was the highlight of my week back in the 1980s.

These days, the canteen holds just as much of a thrill for kids whose schools have them.

But some experts are saying that despite a mandatory healthy-food policy, many canteens and tuckshops are contributing to a generation of obesity.

Sarah Wilson, founder of the I Quit Sugar movement.

And those experts’ voices are being amplified by journalist, TV presenter and author of I Quit Sugar Sarah Wilson, who’s joining forces with a team including Sydney University researchers to overhaul school canteens – starting with New South Wales.

My son’s school is blessed with an excellent canteen – the naughtiest foods available are Paddlepops and low-fat strawberry milk – so perhaps my views are a little biased, but reading about the involvement of a high-profile media personality in dictating what my children are allowed to eat made me a little nervous.

After all, throughout Australia there are different approaches to what can be served at canteens – a “traffic light” system applies with foods categorised according to their nutritional benefits.

I’m all for making our kids healthier, but I wonder when we are going to allow our children  – and parents – to learn to make healthy choices for themselves.

So I took my bias and spoke to Sarah Wilson about her vision for school canteens. This is what she had to say:

Shauna: What is wrong with the current ‘traffic light’ system that school canteens follow?

Sarah: It’s out of date – it doesn’t match up with the current Australian Dietary Guidelines which recognise that sugar needs to be limited. And they (insanely) don’t prioritise whole, real food. Thus, highly-processed foods – like Kellogg’s Liquid Coco Pops – get a green rating, whole plain whole milk gets an amber rating. Insane!

Shauna: Do you think parents realise how unhealthy some of these offerings can be?

Sarah: I think most of the population is genuinely confused about health messaging. We have dietary-wash. This is in part because we’ve allowed the food industry to control these messages with their interests. This is particularly potent when it comes to kids’ nutrition messages, as we see with the way processed food companies are allowed to slap on their own “made-up” logo saying “Canteen approved” or “Lunchbox approved” on their products. No independent authority has approved these labels. But parents don’t know this. I certainly didn’t until I dug down deeper into this issue.

Shauna: I am concerned that it should be about choice though?  No one is forcing parents to buy food from the school canteen.

This lunchbox is making us anxious. Where’s the Vegemite and cheese sandwich?

Sarah: The issue extends to all foods geared at kids’ lunches (i.e. supermarket-purchased foods are also). Also, if we’re talking about foods that are designed to be addictive and highly alluring (with multi-million dollar marketing campaigns behind them), then I’m not sure we can really say parents and kids are being faced with a simple, honest choice. Any parent who tries to get their kid to eat an apple while there’s a plate of lollies sitting in front of them knows this. Any parent trying to get their kids to eat more veggies at lunch when “everyone else gets to eat chips” knows this.
The overwhelming feedback we are getting from the tens of thousands of parents we’ve connected with on this topic, as well as every nutritionist, dietician and scientist engaged in this, is that parents are needing help to manage this situation. Teachers are also calling for help managing what kids are eating – it’s impacting how they’re able to teach the kids in the classroom! Sometimes an issue becomes bigger and more important than the academic pursuit of “choice”. Parents and teachers – and kids – deserve our help.

Shauna: Do you think all sugary foods should be banned from school canteens?

Sarah: I think whole, real food should be served at canteens. This should be the focus. My aim

is to nut out – with the leading dietary and school bodies in this country – how this is best

orchestrated. However, I’d like to avoid bans and restrictive thinking – it’s not the way to go about things with kids.

Shauna: The involvement of your name might frighten some parents thinking a dietary regime involving cutting out food groups is going to be enforced. Can you address their fears?

Sarah: My main dietary message is to encourage the eating of real food. “Just eat real food”

Because kids are really good at keeping their clothes and aprons this clean when they’re ‘helping’ in the kitchen.

has always been my focus. I don’t advocate getting children to quit sugar or to be put on a restrictive “diet” – it’s the wrong way to go about things. All my communications when it comes to children is to steer things to healthier choices, to not make a big deal of things, to get kids cooking and engaged in shopping, and to be careful not to stigmatise sugar.

Shauna: What’s so wrong with a kid having an occasional Paddlepop?

Sarah: There’s nothing wrong with a Paddlepop as an occasional treat. But I think parents need to be supported in ensuring treats remain occasional and not a daily thing.  Both the World Health Organisation’s draft dietary guidelines set to be released any minute now, and the American Heart Association (one of the rare organisations in the world to set such a guideline) advise kids should be eating no more than 3 teaspoons of sugar a day. These guidelines are based on the latest, independent and gold-standard science that shows this is as much as kids can handle before it impacts their health and behaviour. A Paddlepop contains 3 teaspoons of sugar. Let’s remember – we’re talking about food served at schools as lunch. I think treats should be something parents provide, not schools.

Shauna: Overwhelmingly parents just want to do the right thing for their kids. How can they get involved and support your campaign?

Sarah: A first step is to sign the petition being put to NSW Parliament. We’ll be rolling out similar campaigns around Australia soon. Also, simply taking a closer look at the products on the tuck-shop list is important. Ultimately parents do need to take charge of their kids’ eating…in part because legislative change is going to be slow!

If you want to sign the petition (for NSW residents only) here is the link.

What do you think? Does food sold in schools need to be healthier?