Editorial | If we don't all want to be fatties
The inflammatory headline was coined to raise alarm and protest and perhaps temperatures, too. But in doing so, Dr Alfred Dawes' column in Wednesday's Gleaner, captioned 'Ban nutribuns and patties', was profoundly crafted to unmask the simple-mindedness that has dominated the debate on student nutrition.
The food Pharisees have randomly sought to target a few choice favourites of primary- and secondary-school students - namely, bag juices and sodas. But as Dr Dawes, senior medical officer of the Savanna-la-Mar Hospital, explains, targeting a handful of snacks and drinks at school canteens and tuck shops will hardly achieve the monumental goal of cutting childhood obesity in Jamaica.
Ruel Reid, Jamaica's minister of education and information, recently issued a diktat that bag juices will soon not be accommodated under the Government-sponsored School Feeding Programme. Laudable as Mr Reid's intent might be, that will not magically cause schoolchildren to start purchasing more nutritious juices.
Cost is the overriding factor. Bag juices are popular not only because of their sugar content but because of price. At some schools, the product sells for as low as $10 and a high of $20. The thousands of students on PATH welfare, and thousands more who are poor but not on the programme, will not graduate to higher-priced alternatives. And even if bag juices are proscribed under the feeding programme, tuck shops and school gate vendors will still profiteer on the drink.
A more nuanced and thoughtful strategy ought to be examined to rein in the rise of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, among others, to which medical research indicates that black Jamaicans, and Afro-descended people, more generally, are vulnerable. Inciting a Salem witch-hunt will succeed at nothing.
PROVIDE A FRUIT
If the State really wants to incentivise a more nutritious approach, the funds that would have otherwise sponsored cheap drinks could, particularly for PATH-supported children, be geared towards providing a fruit a day to these students, or ensuring that lunch boxes stuffed with rice and fried chicken have an appreciable amount of vegetables for balance. That would be a fillip both for childhood nutrition and to local farmers, many of whose crops rot in the fields in seasons of glut. Unfortunately, this recommendation has been talked to death by numerous agriculture ministers with no game-changing traction.
The Government could also raise awareness and caution on obesity and overweight by insisting that nutritional labels state the caloric content of food and drink. The population at large would know exactly what they are eating and how many pounds they might pack on. The upshot: A more informed consumer - literally - would be more empowered to make sensible decisions.
The school debate has been overly focused on food and drink while ignoring a fundamental component of health and wellness: exercise. As Jamaican society has become more sedentary and childhood inactivity increases, it would be wise to double the number of sessions allotted to physical education in primary and high schools.
We do not believe sufficient emphasis is placed on the importance of physical education. It's not only useful for the impartation of sporting knowledge and for engendering team-building skills; PE should burn fat - and lots of it! Traditionally, the terminal point for PE classes is grade nine, but we see much advantage by extending such activity for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-formers. And while we are at it, barring prescribed health exceptions, students should be mandated to participate in at least one sport, whether at the inter-class or inter-school level.