New regulations should cut out the sale of sweetened drinks in Estonian schools and kindergartens.
The regulations pertain to kindergartens in particular, where catering services are procured from outside contractors. This leads to sweetened drinks often being on offer, not least because they bring calorie consumption up to required daily levels. New regulations being drafted at the Ministry of Social Affairs, however, will set out more precisely which nutrient groups the various calories components should come from. This should effectively put an end to the supply of sugary drinks, it has been argued.
The Estonian education system is organised starting at kindergarten level, which is not mandatory, around age six. This is followed by elementary school (Algkool), sometimes called basic school, at ages 7-11. Secondary school (Põhikool) starts after that, followed by with the optional Gümnaasium from age 16, with tehnical school options also on offer. In short, secondary school means from age 11 upwards; kindergarten and elementary school prior to that.
Secondary schools already cutting out soft drinks
The nutritional situation in secondary schools has already been moving away from ''empty calories'' in sugary beverages and similar, with a more collaborative approach to setting menus and promoting nutrition involving school management, a school's board of trustees as well as its student body, as per the social affairs ministry's existing regulations. In practice, this means that sugary, carbonated drinks often aren't on offer in schools.
This does not mean that such drinks can't be sold in secondary schools at at any time, simply that their sale will only be at the discretion of schools and their boards, something which some of the drinks providers themselves cooperate with (see below).
At present some soft drinks providers do not market their products directly to kindergartens and elementary schools.
Kindergarten and elementary situation a little more complex
However, since catering in kindergartens in Estonia generally follows a procurement basis, with larger companies, such as Dussmann Eesti, often supplying dozens of kindergartens in the same local authority at the same time, there are fewer degrees of control on what ends up on the menu in kindergartens and elementary schools, with many kindergartens carrying soft drinks, sugary snacks etc. to make up the required calorie quota per day.
The use of procurement from caterers like Dussmann means frequently the soft drinks producers are unaware that their products can end up on kindergarten tables. Further lack of awareness amongst parents means many do not realise that fruit juices or sweetened youghurts can be just as high in sugar content as soft drinks (fruit juices and the like were on offer in Dussmann's menu at around 20 schools and kindergartens at the time of writing, it is reported).
So, whilst the situation in schools is quite satisfactory, according to the Ministry of Social Affairs, there are still issues facing kindergarten catering, something which the ministry is drafting laws, likely to come into force this year, to remove such 'empty sugar' calories from their menus.
Calorie count to be based on specific food groups
This should circumvent the problem where nutrition is provided solely on the basis calorie quota systems rather than what forms those calories take, by replacing them with specifications on which food groups should be covered, along the lines of the food pyramid developed by the National Institute for Health Development (TAI).
''The requirements of the new regulations will be more precise, meaning children's nutrition will be more diverse and balanced, and procurement of catering will also be simplified,'' Sille Pihlak, chief specialist at the social affairs ministry's public health department explained.
Ms Pihlak said that whilst the regulations do not confer on kindergartens the right to interfere in composing the menus, but since the regulations are quite exacting, this should not be necessary anyway, she says. In any case there are examples of kindergarten boards already pressuring caterers to not offer sugary drinks, even under the old regulations, she stated.
The same rationale applies to school catering administration too, it appears, where regulations will impose obligations on what must be on the menu.
''This should have the effect of improving the selection on offer at school canteens,'' said Ms Pihlak.
''There will be no specific restrictions implied in the regulations, but rather the aim is to encourage schools to think more about what is on offer, by setting requirements there. These will be discussed with school boards, and student bodies will also have an input,'' she continued.
Part of a broader shift
The move away from soft drinks on the menu with all age groups is moreover a Europe-wide phenomenon, and even has the blessing of some of the drinks companies themselves.
For instance the Union of European Beverages Associations (UNESDA), a body which represents European soft drink producers, has established as its goal ending the sale of sweetened drinks in schools.
One member of UNESDA is Coca-Cola Baltic Jookide AS, the Baltic arm of the soft drinks giant, whose head of PR and communications Nele Normak told ERR that the situation in Estonia is actually much better than in most EU countries, and that the company employs a set of guidelines which prevent it from installing refrigerators carrying images of soft drinks or to sell sweetened soft drinks in school canteens.
Transitional period before becoming norm
"We have also instructed our sales force that will not sell to children's educational facilities in the same way that there aren't any branded refrigerator points of sales in schools," said Ms Normak.
''If a school wishes to provide such drinks on their menus, they would have to do so via intermediary suppliers,'' she continued.
The new regulations being drafted by the social affairs ministry will be followed by a transitional period during which the TAI will provide training and instruction to caterers. It is estimated that the new regulations will be fully in place and followed by the beginning of the 2020-2021 academic year.
The Ministry of Social Affairs has two ministers under its remit, the Minister of Health and Labour (currently Riina Sikkut, SDE) and the Minister of Social Protection (currently Kaia Iva, Pro Patria).
Editor: Andrew Whyte