As Caribbean students begin to return to the classroom across the region, an ambitious campaign promoting nutritious food in schools has been launched with the hope of getting them healthier.
The six-week digital campaign, #ActOnFacts – The Food in Schools Matters, encourages public and policymaker support for the introduction of policies limiting the sale and marketing of foods filled with sugar, fats, and salt in and around schools, while increasing the supply of healthy foods and drinking water.
Spearheaded by the Healthy Caribbean Coalition (HCC), the campaign brings together a raft of partners: UNICEF, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) Commission, the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Barbados (HSFB), the Heart Foundation of Jamaica (HFJ), the Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network (JYAN), with the technical collaboration of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Children spend much of their time at college where unhealthy food and sweet drinks – more available and sometimes cheaper than their healthy counterparts – are heavily marketed. Eating habits established when young can last a lifetime and one in three Caribbean children is already living with obesity. Overconsumption of unhealthy food can also be the primary driver of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) reminiscent of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Urgent motion needed
UNICEF Representative for the Eastern Caribbean Area, Pieter Bult noted: “Urgent motion is required to guard the current and future health of our kids. Investing in healthy diets in class gives children the perfect start in life and can help them flourish each physically and intellectually, setting them on the trail to achieving their full potential.”
PAHO’s Subregional Programme Director for the Caribbean, Dean Chambliss, said: “The vulnerable economies of the Caribbean simply cannot sustain the health and security threat posed by the increasing tide of chubby and obesity amongst children.
He added: “PAHO/WHO is working with regional governments to support the implementation of a comprehensive package of interventions to combat childhood obesity, including regulating the sale and marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages in class settings.”
CARPHA reports that the Caribbean has a few of the highest rates of childhood obesity on this planet. Executive Director, Dr. Joy St. John, cautioned: “We are able to now not afford inaction on regulating school environments. Ultra-processed foods haven’t any place in our schools which are supposed to be environments that support physical and mental health.”
In response to Dr. Didacus Jules, OECS’ Director General, “healthy school policies present a possibility for food manufacturers and distributors to explore healthier options”.
Regional food security a priority too
The campaign also supports the regional food and nutrition security agenda, calling on the Caribbean to maneuver towards growing what we eat and eating what we grow. Dr. Renata Clarke, FAO’s Subregional Coordinator, emphasised that “farm to high school programmes which link farming communities/farmers to high school meals programmes not only expose children to local indigenous produce but in addition contribute to sustainable farming livelihoods and support food and nutrition security”.
Some Caribbean countries have moved ahead with national policies which regulate the supply of sugar-sweetened beverages in schools, including Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, The Bahamas, and, most recently, Grenada. Each Barbados and St. Lucia have similar policies in process.
Sir Trevor Hassell, HCC’s President, noted that more was needed. He said: “Despite the increasing policy momentum, the pace of motion doesn’t match the urgency of the situation. The pandemic has highlighted our deep fragility underscoring greater than ever the necessity to construct resilience. The health of our region is the wealth of our region. We want to take a position in prevention policies which goal our most precious resource – our kids.”
The campaign – which inspires parents to push for healthy school nutrition policies – uses largely monochrome imagery: playing on the concept that the link between our kids’s health and eating regimen is just ‘black and white. It’ll be supported by numerous activities led by HCC’s youth arm, Healthy Caribbean Youth.
In response to the campaign’s Youth Champion, Pierre Cooke Jr., “This campaign sends a strong message that schools must not be dumping grounds for unhealthy ultra-processed foods. We’ve a right to nutritious food and good health. Caribbean Governments have an obligation to guard this right. The evidence is unequivocal – ‘#ActOnFacts! – The Food in Schools Matters’ campaign will make a difference.”
For further information, individuals may visit the campaign’s website at https://www.healthycaribbean.org/the-food-in-our-schools-matters/ . (BGIS)