New tool supports healthy food in schools

24 February 2016
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A new online tool will be launched next month to enable schools to self-review the healthiness of the food and beverages they have available and support them in improving their food environments where needed. The launch of the new School Food Environment Review and Support Tool (School-FERST) will coincide with International School Meals Day on Thursday 3rd March.

The tool has been developed by the INFORMAS* team from the University of Auckland and is designed to enable schools to assess and continue to contribute positively to their food environments by capturing important indicators and best practice examples.

These include foods and beverages provided and sold on the school premises, use of school gardens, participation in food and nutrition programmes and the school’s food and nutrition policy. School-FERST will also highlight the efforts of schools that are taking positive steps to improve their food and nutrition environments and promote them as role models. It will enable schools to better link their nutrition education curriculum to mirror the food and beverages offered.

“The data gathered using School-FERST will provide an important snapshot of food and nutrition environments in schools in Aotearoa,” says INFORMAS Co-ordinator, Professor Boyd Swinburn. “It’s vital we act now to better understand and improve the food environments of our children,” he says.

The Childhood Obesity Plan announced by the Government in October 2015 includes a focus on education and the school environment. The lead agency for this work, the Ministry of Health, supports the use of School-FERST by schools. Childhood obesity was highlighted last year as a key health target, in a statement by Health Minister, Dr Jonathan Coleman. “Many Kiwi children consume one or two of their daily meals at school, so the school food environment is the key to establishing healthy eating patterns from a young age,” says Professor Swinburn.

Lisa King and Chef Michael Meredith, founders of ‘Eat My Lunch’, which provides lunch to kiwi kids in need, are also supportive of School-FERST. ‘Eat My Lunch’ is based on the principle that every child deserves a healthy and nutritious meal at lunch time. Ms. King says, “We all know that kids struggle to concentrate and learn on an empty stomach so in order for them to succeed our lunches focus on a wholesome lunch with less sugar and more veggies – nothing from a packet!” Research has linked healthy eating with positive body weight, better mental health and educational outcomes.

St. Mary’s School in Avondale (Auckland) also recognised the link between healthy eating and improving student engagement which led to them creating their own garden and developing a healthier canteen menu. Their efforts were recognised with a Heart School Award from The Heart Foundation which runs several programmes that facilitate healthy food environments in schools. The INFORMAS team is keen to build on this success with the launch of School-FERST.

School-FERST will provide detailed, individual feedback to schools on various aspects of their school food environments. Schools will also be able to see how they fare in comparison to schools in their decile, region, and across the country. “Schools will be able to easily identify areas where they excel, and areas for improvement,” says Professor Swinburn. “Those with exceptionally healthy environments will be identified and promoted as role model schools, to offer best practice examples for others to follow.” School-FERST will also provide resources to guide those schools working toward improving the healthiness of their food environments.

To get involved with the School-FERST project, schools can contact: Erica D’Souza e.dsouza@auckland.ac.nz or visit www.schoolferst.co.nz.