Research shows that South Africa has one of the highest childhood obesity rates in Africa. Approximately 15% of school children are overweight or obese – three times the global average of 5%. It has only taken only seven years – from 2008 to 2015 for the percentage of overweight and obese children to double.
In March 2018, members of the Healthy Living Alliance (Heala) conducted an audit of the food environment at 61 schools in Soweto and the East Rand, covering 62,883 learners.
The aim of the audit was to investigate what primary and secondary school learners consume at the schools by looking at the school nutrition programmes and what was being sold at tuckshops and by vendors.
The Heala audit report found that the kota was the most popularly consumed lunch meal in school followed by fat cakes.
This finding is supported by a 2009 study of fast food consumption among teenagers in Soweto and Johannesburg, which found the kota was one of the highest consumed meal amongst teenagers.
Based on the results of the audit, Heala this week hosted community engagements with 30 schools in Ekurhuleni in order to spark conversation about the importance of healthy eating.
The aim was to also enforce good policiesand also to get schools to pledge to improve their food environment and write testimonials/ letters outlining their support for government to enforce policies that protect children from marketing of junk food and to ban junk food and sugary drinks on school premises.
“Our aim for the community engagement is to create conversation about the importance of eating healthy in schools and also educate different stakeholders about the power of having policies. We want to assist schools to make informed decisions about the food they eat and also protect learners from the marketing of unhealthy food at school,” said Tracey Malawana of Heala.
“We believe that there’s a role that each stakeholder has to play to change the food environment in schools and the government can intervene by implementing policies that restrict the food industry from advertising unhealthy food to children,” she added.
We believe that there’s a role that each stakeholder has to play to change the food environment in schools and the government can intervene by implementing policies that restrict the food industry from advertising unhealthy food to children.
Some of the points that were raised by learners who attended the engagements were that fruit was expensive while junk food was cheaper and more filling.
The learners said they do want their school food environment to be changed and signed a petition calling for the MECs of Education and Health to help change the school food environment.
Jafta Sekome, a tuckshop operator at Charlotte Maxeke High School in Tembisa, says that this will be hard to achieve.
“Well I think it is good to change the eating behaviour for children, but I believe it should start early in the primary schools and ECDs so that they grow up knowing what foods are good for their bodies,” said Sekome.
He added “Even though selling healthy food will kill us in terms of profit, we are hoping to find a way of working around it when it starts.”
HEALA is calling for the implementation of Tuckshop Guidelines that will ensure that:
Highly processed and fried food is not sold on school premises;
The only drinks allowed to be sold at schools should be milk, water and drinks without added sugar. These drinks should measure between 200ml and 250ml;
Vending machines at schools should be unbranded;
Schools must keep a database of vendors selling food and beverage items on or near the school premises, and what those items are;
Schools should offer training or hold meetings with tuckshop operators on the nutritional value of different products being sold;
Vendors should get support from the Small Business Ministry grow food on school grounds that they can sell at schools and in their communities, and
All beverage company branding in schools to be removed, including billboards, cooler boxes and fridges.