A Sydney daycare’s decision to ban vegemite on toast – a longtime staple of the Australian lunch box – has thrown a spotlight onto the changing contents of the humble school lunch.
The move, reportedly made to reduce carbohydrate intake in line with NSW Health’s Munch & Move program, forced the state’s health minister to confirm the government was “not in the game of banning Vegemite on toast”.
“Vegemite is not going anywhere. Toast is not going anywhere,” he said.
“We don’t want people to feel bad because their kids are having Vegemite … my kids love it.”
Once filled with sugary snacks and processed treats, two decades of health intervention has transformed the lunch options for students across Australia.
Faced with the rising tide of obesity in children, governments and health organisations identified schools as having a central role in promoting healthy behaviours.
One of the earliest steps taken was the National Healthy School Canteens program in 2010, phasing out deep-fried and sugary items for healthier options.
Each state and territory has now introduced its own healthy eating strategy, pushing unhealthy options “off the menu” at canteens across the country.
Most states have adopted the Traffic Lights System, which categorises food into green for the healthiest choices, amber for foods to be eaten in moderation and red for foods to avoid.
Research shows most lunches are brought from home, with these policies aiming to “model” healthy eating options to students and their parents.
But the pressure on families to create the perfect box is on the rise, fuelled by popular parent blogs and social media groups.
Hundreds of online communities have popped up, dishing out complicated lunch orders – a far cry from the sandwich, juicebox and muesli bar many of today’s parents grew up with.
Experts, however, say packing lunches can be a daily struggle for busy parents, with peer pressure convincing them to include a variety of exotic foods.
Instead lunch boxes should be practical, affordable and include healthy options that children will actually eat.
Resources, like the Cancer Council’s Healthy Lunch Box website, urge parents to swap out unhealthy snacks for alternatives.
These include swapping out the juice box for water or milk, cheese spread for vegetable sticks and hummus, muesli bars for homemade treats and chips for popcorn or rice crackers.
Foods and drinks banned from school canteens include; chocolate spreads like Nutella, chocolate chip cookies, cakes and pastries, chips, lollies and anything deep-fried.
Alternatives put forward include fruit, yoghurt, vegetables, popcorn, wholemeal crackers with hummus, multigrain or wholemeal sandwiches, tuna, eggs or lean meats, combined with pasta, grains or rice.
Drinks banned include; soft drinks, iced tea, sports drinks, energy drinks and fruit juices other with less than 99 per cent juice content.
Instead its recommended students drink water, reduced-fat milk and soy products.
The critical gaze on school lunch boxes has created a new challenge, as parents report some schools now audit lunches and send home unhealthy snacks.
A survey of parents by Flinders University’s Caring Futures Institute, found most families would welcome school-provided lunches as an alternative.
“Families have described how challenging the provision of healthy, enjoyable and affordable lunch boxes can be,” researcher Dr Brittany Johnson said.
“We need to start thinking about what we can do to better support families.
“It’s the right time to start a national conversation about embracing school provided meals.”