Changes to the way WA schools promote healthy eating for kids have prompted concerns that junk food such as chips, soft drinks and lollies could creep back on to school canteen menus.
The Health Department recently awarded a $3.7 million contract to Victorian-based organisation Nutrition Australia to provide a “whole of school healthy eating program” — snubbing the WA School Canteen Association, which has delivered the State Government’s healthy food and drink policy in schools for the past 15 years.
While the new program is expected to continue a traffic light system categorising food choices as green for nutritious, amber for occasional, or red for junk, there are fears the new provider will change WA’s criteria.
“At a school level, that might mean the health of our kids is affected because we could have some unhealthy items coming into schools which have currently not been there,” WASCA chief executive Megan Sauzier said.
“The traffic light system is a bit different in Victoria. Red foods, for example, which are soft drinks, lollies and chips, are off the menu in WA and have been off the menu from 2007, whereas in Victoria you’re allowed to have red foods twice a term.”
Nutrition Australia is yet to release full details of its approach, but insists there would be no immediate changes to WA’s traffic light criteria.
“We will implement the criteria the WA government wants us to implement,” Nutrition Australia’s Victorian healthy eating advisory service program manager Margaret Rozman said.
Ms Sauzier said the decision to disregard WASCA’s excellent track record and experience to award the tender to an interstate organisation meant its funding had been slashed by 41 per cent, significantly reducing its capacity to support schools and assess their canteen menus.
“We look forward to seeing what is developed . . . but until that service is set up, we’re unsure what that will look like and there’s likely to be a gap in the services schools are used to receiving,” she said. “Anything that increases the burden on school or canteen staff is likely to have a negative effect.”
Pania Turner, president of the WA Council of State School Organisations — the peak body for P&C groups which operate most school canteens — has written to Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson and Health Department director-general David Russell-Weisz to express her “disappointment at the lack of consultation”, adding: “I have concerns that support for building healthy food cultures in school communities will be less.”
Ms Turner said canteens were an important school service. “It is vital that they have access to expert support from people who understand WA schools and the complexities that come from running canteens which are largely staffed by volunteers,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the Health Department said it conducted an open, competitive tender process to select a program provider in accordance with WA Government procurement policy to roll out a comprehensive new whole-of-school healthy eating program for all WA schools — public and private.
“A new website for schools with resources, curriculum materials, online training and an online FoodChecker recipe and menu assessment tool will be delivered, as well as phone, email and face-to-face support for all school and canteen staff,” she said.
“Terms 3 and 4 are a transition phase, while the new program is rolled out in full by the start of the 2023 school year.”
The spokeswoman said supporting West Australians to halt rising obesity levels was a key priority for the department.
“Helping children establish healthy eating habits while in school is in an essential part of the concerted effort to help the whole WA community achieve this aim,” she said.
The Education Department said the provider would need to support schools to enact the requirements of the Healthy Food and Drink in Public Schools procedures.