Principals sadly more passionate about pies than poverty


You would have thought the end of civilisation was on the horizon. The wailing and gnashing of teeth by school principals was audible across New Zealand last week.

The reason was the Government’s policy announcement that from June next year schools would be expected to sell only healthy food from their tuckshops, with unhealthy food being restricted to “about once per term – for example, for particular events”.

The reaction was a mixture of indignant outrage and shrill confusion. Principals said it was an example of the nanny state telling them what to do. Schools would be invaded by state food police who would pick their way through school rubbish bins.

One principal said schools had neither the ability nor the desire to inspect the food children brought to school. Don’t pick on schools, educate the parents, another complained.

Others said it would never work because children ate less than 30 per cent of their daily food intake at school. If pies were banned, children would simply buy them on the way to school or after school.

Mount Albert Grammar School’s principal, Dale Burden, was particularly petulant. “It’s a nonsense. It’s more bureaucracy, more telling schools what to do. I don’t like it,” he said.

The last time I visited Mount Albert Grammar, a Coke-vending machine took pride of place in the main corri- dor. I hope it’s gone.

The real disgrace is that the Government needed to act at all. While many schools have come a long way, too many continue to sell food which is driving the obesity epidemic and detracting from children’s learning.

A recent Green Party survey of 50 schools found 84 per cent sold pies, hotdogs, hotbites or sausage rolls, while 24% did not sell rolls or sandwiches.

The Obesity Action Coalition says it’s a cop-out for schools to teach healthy eating at 11.30am and then an hour later have children line up at the tuckshop for fatty sausage rolls, chocolate bars and fizzy drinks. Who could disagree with that?

The unseemly cacophony created by principals continued for two days and defies rational explanation. Almost to a person, they were off the point and inarticulate. It was a shameful display of arrogance from those who purport to know better than common sense.

For some it could be worry about losing money on a lucrative contract with a tuckshop proprietor, but for most it seems that they simply resent any interference in “their right” to run “their school” as they see fit. It was a bad dose of Tomorrow’s Schools-itis.

These principals of state and state-integrated schools need to be reminded that they are public servants. We expect them to be educational leaders in their communities, and we expect sensible, considered contributions to public debate from them. We expect them to be focused on ways to improve our children’s learning, particularly for those in the long tail of underachievement which drags through our low-income communities.

It will be a great day for our children when principals express less passion about pies and more passion about poverty.

But the issues around children, education and food need to be taken up by the Government outside the school gates as well.

Last year, a Ministry of Health food survey showed that families spend more on sweets each week than on fresh fruit, with a total of $124 million now spent each year advertising sweets, chocolate, fizzy drinks, fast foods and eating out compared to just $6.2 million advertising fruit and vegetables.

Ten times more is spent advertising fast foods than advertising fresh produce.

I have previously suggested three steps the Government could take alongside a ban on unhealthy food sales at schools, and yes, it involves a hands-on Government and regulations with real bite. Remove GST on fresh fruit and vegetables, ban the advertising of fast foods and fizzy drink on television before 8.30pm, and introduce a 10% tax on fast foods.

The first would make fresh fruit and vegetables more accessible for families on low incomes, while the other two would put the brakes on the fast-food chains, which are the real drivers of the obesity epidemic.

Meanwhile, we should applaud 23-year-old Tracey Vickers, of Northland, who took exception to a poster of three bikini-clad women “riding” a hamburger at Whangarei’s Burger King. Tracey took the poster down and has been charged with wilful damage.

“I just don’t believe that sex should be used to sell a product it has no relation to,” said Tracey. She is right. If the Government took effective steps against such advertising, we would have healthier children and happier schools. It’s a pity that our school principals don’t have a bit of Tracey’s initiative.