Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia school lunches get failing mark in some areas

Hotdogs, garlic fingers and poutine were supposed to be outlawed from schools when Nova Scotia launched a lunch nutrition policy nearly a decade ago.

Cost, waste are significant factors in school menus

Hotdogs, garlic fingers and poutine were supposed to be outlawed from schools when Nova Scotia launched a lunch nutrition policy nearly a decade ago.

But those are just some of the tasty — although far from healthy — morsels Dalhousie researchers found were being served as they surveyed elementary school cafeteria and lunchroom menus across the province.

The study, published in the Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research, looked at 110 elementary school menus in the province during the 2012-2013 school year. It found that even if all food was prepared with the healthiest of ingredients, more than 20 per cent of the items appear to be of little nutritional value and are supposed to be banned.

Many schools are feeding hungry children a fine selection of fruit cups, carrots and 100 per cent apple juice, researchers found. But others struggle, instead dishing up nachos, cookies and chicken fingers.

One of the issues, says Jessie-Lee McIsaac, a postdoctoral fellow at Dalhousie University, is how much healthy food costs. It means some principals are reluctant to spend money figuring out nutritious meals that students will actually enjoy.

'They have to sort of eat that profit loss'

"Because of the costs and challenges associated with that, schools struggle with experimenting," McIsaac says.

"Because if they experiment and it doesn't go well, then they have to sort of eat that profit loss. It's really tough for schools to do these things when the costs of healthy alternatives are so expensive."

Some schools have full-fledged cafeterias and cooking areas. But others have few facilities, or none at all, and instead contract out. In some cases, there are few local restaurants or caterers available.

The province introduced a new policy in 2006 that was supposed to strip schools of unhealthy food, prompting by growing obesity numbers among Nova Scotia children and concerns it would lead to higher rates of heart disease and diabetes.

Food was ranked as maximum, moderate or minimum nutritional value. Pop was banned, as were other types of junk food and sweets. Hot dogs were relegated to special events.

School struggle with policy

Food of minimum value was supposed to be gone from menus by 2008, and the majority of food sold was to be of maximum nutrition by June 2009.

"I think that's one thing we should be really proud of in Nova Scotia," says Sara Kirk, who worked on the study and is Canada Research Chair in Health Services Research.

The issue is researchers found some schools were not keeping to the policy. A dietician studied the menus, categorizing food by the province's maximum, moderate and minimum standard. In cases where the ingredients weren't clear, foods could be slotted into two different categories.

For instance, salad was served at 67 per cent of schools. It's of maximum value, unless there is high-fat dressing and it drops to moderate.

Of the menus surveyed, 58 per cent offered fruit and 44 per cent listed vegetables. On the flip side, 45 per cent had chicken fingers, 36 per cent garlic fingers, and some still served hot dogs and fries.

Getting students to eat healthy choices

There are schools who have found ways to adhere to the policy, McIssac says, and they need to share with other schools how they get healthy food into students.

"There were some really creative things on school menus, too," she says. "There needs to be more of that sharing of the success, because there's a lot of that in Nova Scotia."

She points to schools that have their own gardens and then use the produce in lunches. Others have salad bars that offer choice or panini presses.

The researchers at Dalhousie have launched a more comprehensive study to look at exactly what ingredients are going into the food that's prepared for students, and what capacity schools have to make good food.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education says monitoring and evaluation is part of the province's school nutrition policy and menus are reviewed. The department will look at the Dalhousie study and other data "to help inform any futures changes to the policy."