The Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network (JYAN) has commended the Government, particularly the Ministries of Education and Youth, and Health and Wellness, for taking steps to address unhealthy eating in schools.
Speaking at a recent JIS ‘Think Tank’, Policy and Advocacy Coordinator at the JYAN, Shereika Mills, said that “we all have to start taking steps to realise our Vision 2030 goal of building a healthy and stable population that is inherently resilient to diseases”.
She pointed out that the youth-led organisation, in playing its part to ensure that children have access to safer, healthier foods, has made recommendations for a School Nutrition and Wellness Policy.
In January 2019, the Government implemented the Sugary Drink Restriction Policy, whose guidelines placed a limit on sweetened beverages above a defined maximum sugar concentration that can be sold or served at public educational institutions.
They also stipulate a limit on sweetened beverages above a defined maximum sugar concentration that can be sold and served by all persons, companies or groups involved in the provision of beverages to these institutions, including but not limited to canteen operators, concessionaires, vendors, teachers, school administrators and students.
The guidelines specifically prohibit sugar-sweetened beverages being sold or served in schools if the total sugar concentration exceeds the maximum six grams (of sugar)/100 millilitre (ml), effective January 1, 2019; maximum five grams/100 ml, effective January 1, 2020; maximum four grams/100 ml, effective January 1, 2021; and maximum 2.5 grams/100 ml, effective January 1, 2023.
Beverages that will be permitted in schools include plain water, unsweetened flavoured and infused water, unsweetened juices, unsweetened coconut water, unsweetened milk or milk products, and unsweetened milk substitutes and milk substitute products.
Minister of Health and Wellness, Dr. the Hon. Christopher Tufton, during his contribution to the 2018/19 Sectoral Debate in the House of Representatives, said that the Ministry of Education and Youth and the Ministry of Health and Wellness would work with manufacturers and distributors to provide the policy guidelines on the requirements for these drink products to be allowed in schools.
“We have to acknowledge and commend the efforts of the Government in introducing measures to tackle the prevalence of drinks that are excessively sweetened with sugar, through the Interim Guidelines for Beverages in Schools, which place a restriction on these drinks,” Ms. Mills said.
She also noted that the Jamaica Moves in School campaign has been a wonderful introduction to confront the fact that young people are becoming more sedentary, and to instil the value of exercise and being physically active.
Ms. Mills said that with schools now being reopened and “given what we have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, now more than ever, the School Nutrition and Wellness Policy is needed”.
The implementation of the Policy in Jamaica will ensure that children have access to healthy food environments that do not rely on informal systems and the sole willpower of school administration but is backed by Ministerial direction that will promote the nutritional well-being of students.
School nutrition policies are recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an effective way to promote dietary patterns that reduce the risks of non-communicable diseases.
Ms. Mills argued that the policy, if approved, can have a positive impact on school nutrition and, by extension, the learning abilities of children.
Meanwhile, Clinical Nutritionist at the Caribbean Institute for Health Research (CAIHR) at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Dr. Suzanne Soares-Wynter, said that schools in Jamaica are a vital source of daily sustenance for many children, especially those from vulnerable communities and low-income families.
For the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a disruption in the education system where some children not only suffer from learning loss but from access to safer and healthier foods.
“We know that children had to turn to virtual learning due to COVID-19. As such, we are likely to see reports where children have gained weight over the course of the pandemic, as we know that they may have consumed various unhealthy foods” Dr. Soares-Wynter said.
The consumption of these foods, she explained, is associated with lower academic performance for many, in that children have actually reported having lower maths and English scores.
She said that schools are meant to provide a healthy environment for children’s physical and mental development, thereby including nutritious foods in their lunches.
With the resumption of face-to-face classes, the need to improve school-feeding programmes and to educate students and families on the importance of healthy eating is of utmost importance.
“With children returning to the classrooms, this is a great opportunity to promote healthier eating in schools by creating a supportive environment where children can make healthier food choices,” said Dr. Soares-Wynter.
She argued that a strategic approach must be taken to ease children into the food options that they had access to, pre-pandemic.
Dr. Soares-Wynter said she strongly supports these efforts to improve school nutrition, and implementation of the policy is, therefore, an important step.
“With some of the challenges that children would have had during COVID-19, it’s really important at this stage to ensure that a School Nutrition Policy is in place, because this type of unhealthy eating behaviour can have a long-lasting impact,” she added.
Established in 2006, JYAN is one of the leading youth advocacy organisations in Jamaica and has executed sustained advocacy over the years on issues of sexual and reproductive health rights, mental health, violence and youth, child rights and protection.