Ministry launches new attempt to bring healthier foods to school cafeterias

Cinnamon buns.
Cinnamon buns. Source: Reigo Teervalt

The Ministry of Social Affairs wants to make principals responsible for school cafeterias' food choices in the new Public Health Act. The Estonian Institute for Health Development (TAI) finds the changes necessary as many schools still sell potato chips and lemonade.

The Ministry of Social Affairs will soon send out for coordination and approval the new Public Health Act bill, which aims to address what types of food is offered in school cafeterias. The previous attempt to regulate cafeterias' choices was made seven years ago.

Minister of Health Riina Sikkut told ERR that decisions of what to offer would be made by school principals, based on TAI recommendations.

"While TAI will put together guidelines and recommendations, the decision will be up to individual schools based on the availability of shops in the vicinity, the length of school days and the age of students. "There will not be a single rule but rather a set of recommendations," she explained.

When the matter of school cafeterias last came up on the legislative level, banning the sale of pastries was mulled. Sikkut described the incoming law as more flexible.

Even though principles will theoretically be able to allow every type of unhealthy food and drink to be sold at cafeterias, Sikkut said she cannot imagine heads of schools doing so after browsing the TAI materials.

Cafeterias tend to prefer sweets

Tagli Pitsi, nutrition and exercise expert at TAI, said that the need to regulate school cafeterias' choices is acute as sweets were on offer in 39 out of 191 Estonian schools looked at in a recent WHO European Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative (COSI) study. Nine percent of schools also had a vending machine.

"No one is saying there should be none available, while there is usually a wide selection if sweets are offered," she said.

There were also numerous schools that offered fruit drinks and even lemonade and potato chips. Sweets tend to dominate selections.

Pitsi said that school cafeterias should promote healthy choices, such as fruits and vegetables, dried fruits, nuts, sandwiches and salads. It would also be good if schools sold proper hot meals for those who cannot find the time during the lunch intermission or just feel they need to eat more.

Talking about what cafeterias absolutely shouldn't carry, Pitsi pointed to soft drinks and other types of sweetened drinks, which consist mainly of sugar and water and contain little to no nutrients. Energy drinks and foods that contain azo dyes or strong artificial sweeteners are also not recommended for children.

"Snacks with a very high salt and fat content – potato chips, garlic bread sticks – we do not need these foods, and there is no need to keep them under kids' noses as a temptation," Pitsi explained. She added that the selection of candy and chocolate should be as modest as possible.

The TAI expert also said that while pastries contain a lot of energy, they have little in the way of vitamins, fiber and mineras, meaning that kids either replace hot food with pastries or eat them on top of their lunch, which works to increase the risk of obesity.

"We do not need to force cafeterias not to offer them, while the selection should be smaller and the pastries themselves too," Pitsi said.

While the ministry is also planning to update requirements for school lunches, this part of the amendments will be tackled once the government has sent the bill to the Riigikogu.

The TAI recommendations for principals are from 2019 guidelines, which will likely be slightly revised.

The Social Ministry hopes to see the changes enter into force from 2025.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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