School meals are not a trivial matter for Jamaica, youth advocates say

After just about two years, all schools reopened for face-to-face learning this week. There was a collective sigh of relief, I think, among schools, parents – and the students themselves, who have been struggling with all kinds of pressures since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Today (March 10) is the second anniversary of the confirmation of the very first COVID case in Jamaica. By that time, it had been pretty much expected to arrive; but little did we know what a roller coaster ride we were in for, two years ago.

There are important issues to tackle as schools reopen fully – besides critical learning issues. One of these is nutrition. The Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network (JYAN) has taken on this issue that is so important for the future health of Jamaicans and which has been an issue of concern for years (please read fellow blogger Dennis Jones’ 2014 post here). Hunger is a reality for many Jamaicans; and for many children, the school meal is often the only good meal they will have for the day.

Below is JYAN’s press release, followed by a commentary by one of their advocates, a medical student. Should we be concerned that the Government is planning to divest Nutrition Products Limited, which manufactures and distributes school meals? I think perhaps we should.

Please pardon the pun – but this is definitely “food for thought”… Read JYAN’s list of recommendations here and sign JYAN’s petition, calling on the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information to “prioritize the total wellbeing of students and ensure they are also protected from unhealthy foods in the school environment.”

International School Meals Day 2022: Celebrating School Meals Sharing ideas, stories and experiences of the past, present, and future

KINGSTON, March 9, 2021 – On the eve of Independence in 1962, malnutrition was the largest single cause of death in Jamaica for children under one (Ashworth and Waterlow, 1974, p. 6). Although we have made great strides in reducing child malnutrition since independence, Jamaica still faces a double burden of malnutrition, with children facing undernutrition caused by lack of access to healthy, safe food, and also suffering from NCDs as a result of overconsumption of ultra processed foods. In Jamaica, one in eight persons has diabetes, and one in three has hypertension.

The Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network (JYAN) remains concerned about the nutrition status of children in Jamaica, and joins with the international community in Celebrating International School Meals Day 2022 by examining the history and traditions of school nutrition, paying attention to our present situation, and advocating for a better future for child health and nutrition in Jamaica.

Meal time at a school in Clarendon, Jamaica.

The National School Feeding Programme, run by the Government of Jamaica through Nutrition Products Limited (NPL), is undoubtedly one of the fondest school meal traditions that many Jamaicans have. The programme is also partly responsible for the fact that child malnutrition did not increase during the 1970s, in an environment of general economic decline. At present, directives from the GoJ dictate that NPL produce a wider variety of products, provide fruit juice and water instead of sugar sweetened drinks and milk, and reduce the sugar content of the famous nutri-bun.

We should be concerned, however, that the Government of Jamaica is divesting the manufacturing and distribution aspects of NPL, signaling the end of a state run and funded school feeding programme. In an environment where 70% of Jamaicans do not have resources or access to safe and nutritious food, and recognizing the importance of the school feeding tradition in encouraging attendance and boosting performance, especially among the nation’s most disenfranchised, what will our future look like? What will be provided as food options for students? How will we guarantee that healthy products will be provided? Will students now have to pay for the food provided under this programme? How much will they be required to pay?

In any event, the decision to divest further highlights the need to have a school nutrition and wellness policy that will create guidelines for school meals, and for companies that are contracted to provide school food both for the school feeding programme, and in the wider school retail environment.

Now, more than ever, our children’s future depends on it.

To learn more about health and nutrition issues affecting young people, visit www.youthadvocateja.org/health-nutrition. For further information, contact: SHEREIKA MILLS – Policy & Advocacy Officer, Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network (JYAN) advocacy@youthadvocateja.org | 876-410-8258 

#NYAMHealthyJA (“Nyam” in Jamaican Patois means “Eat”)

Thoughts on Nutrition

Jamaica is in a position where we have to look at multiple issues at once to fix the huge issues that now face us. The school environment is one such huge issue that will require a team of experts to redirect our nation’s children and put Jamaica back on track to achieving some of the goals of Vision 2030.

Children in Jamaica routinely attend a school environment that is historically academically inefficient and now we are realizing is also nutritionally poor.

There are startling trends in Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) among children within the Jamaican context. We have to consider the environments that children and young people exist in, and how eating habits formed in these environments can affect their long term health outcome. Many NCDs can be prevented by reducing common risk factors such as physical inactivity and unhealthy diets.

Western Pattern Diet and NCDs

Diet is a major aspect of the proliferation of NCDs among Jamaican children in recent years. The Western Pattern Diet predominates in Jamaica and consists mostly of high amounts of processed foods, red meat, high-fat dairy products, high-sugar foods, and pre-packaged foods. The Western Pattern Diet is low in fruits and vegetables, and high in fat and sodium. Moreover, this diet consists of large portions, high calories, and excess sugar. This excess sugar accounts for more than 13% of the daily caloric intake with beverages constituting 47% of these added sugars. Other sources include cookies, cakes, and candy.

In the school environment we know from experience and research that it is easier for students to access processed foods with high amounts of sugar and salt. Candy, patties and chips form a major part of the diet of school aged children.

The main constituents of the Western Pattern Diet all increase the risk of chronic illness, especially NCDs. From a nutritional perspective and against the backdrop of the present situation in Jamaica, public health and public institutions have to combine to correct this issue before our children fall ill to preventable diseases, and we lose our vision of having a stable and healthy population.

Role of schools in promoting good nutrition

A healthy school nutrition environment provides students with nutritious and appealing foods and beverages, consistent and accurate messages about good nutrition, and ways to learn about and practice healthy eating throughout the time children spend on school grounds—including before and after school.

Nutrition education is a vital part of a comprehensive health education program and empowers children with knowledge and skills to make healthy food and beverage choices. In addition, many core eating habits and behavioural patterns are developed that may persist throughout adulthood.

Schools can provide an important opportunity for prevention, because they provide the most effective method of reaching large numbers of people, including youth, school staff, families and community members. Healthy food and improved nutrition should be a high priority on every school agenda because of the positive effect on child well-being, and subsequent enhanced learning ability and academic performance. 

Policies in Jamaica

To date, there is a paucity of informed policy formulation in Jamaica pertinent to the matter of nutrition education in schools. The Healthy Caribbean Coalition issued a regional report in 2019 called the Rapid Assessment of the School Nutrition Policy Environment. This report enumerated the findings of studies conducted in select Caribbean countries, Jamaica among the chosen few. The report assessed the existing policy frameworks in the included countries and identified areas of weakness.

Policy pertaining to banning or restricting the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages in and around schools was found to be present in Jamaica. The Ministry of Education, Youth and Information (MOEYI) and the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW) implemented mandatory Interim Guidelines for Beverages in Schools which restrict the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages in all schools.

Policy banning or restricting the sale of unhealthy foods that are energy dense and nutrient poor or high fat, sugar and salt in and around all schools is absent. Policy banning or restricting the marketing of sugar-sweetened beverages in and around all schools is absent. Policy banning or restricting the marketing of unhealthy foods that are energy dense and nutrient poor or high fat, sugar and salt in and around all schools is absent. Sugar sweetened beverage tax is absent. Government nutrition policy or guidelines specifically for all schools is absent.

The way forward

It is of vital importance that these issues are resolved while we seek to address all the other alarming issues in the school environment. As the situation stands, the state of nutrition in schools represents an untenable crisis.

Rashaun Stewart, Medical Student and JYAN Advocate


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