One of the things I have loved about our Australian Tour to Transform Children’s Health is all the different perspectives of the people we have met, and that’s over 13,000 people now! Recently, I met a lady who has been working in school tuckshops for over 20 years. She gave me a real interesting perspective on how school tuckshop life used to be. In fact, it made me smile because it brought back memories of my own school life. It made me realise just how much the role of the tuckshop has changed in the last 20 years. It reinforced to me Why Healthy Tuckshops Are Necessary Today.
Why Healthy Tuckshops Are Necessary Today
Healthy school tuckshops are necessary because life and times have changed so dramatically over the last 20 plus years. For example, in the last 20 plus years, all of these things have changed:
- Children’s health in Australia has declined – this is a scary statement, I know
- Home life has changed – there are more families with 2 parents working, more single parent families, more processed food in the lunchboxes, more frequent use of the tuckshop
- The role of the tuckshop has changed – the way it’s used by families, the food offered, Government guidelines
It’s the combination of all these changes over the last 20 years, which sees the need for our Tuckshops to be offering healthy menu options.
Today Tuckshops play an important role in children’s health!
Let’s explore these areas further and the impact they have had on the Tuckshop. The information has been gathered from a number of research papers, survey questions to various Facebook communities (over 600 responses), and our observations and learnings from visiting 63 schools and reaching 13,000 people so far on our Australian Tour to Transform Children’s Health.
Children’s Health In Australia Has Declined
The health issues facing our children are growing, and all of these health issues have increased in the last 20 plus years: overweight and obesity, diabetes type 2 (once an adult onset illness), asthma, stroke, heart disease, high blood pressure, auto-immune conditions, ADHD, Autism, allergies, anxiety, depression and more. Some of them can be put down to medical science becoming smarter and being able to effectively label them, but when Government funded reports are saying the prevalence of some of these illnesses in our kids are the highest in the world, then you have to acknowledge that we have a problem.
One of the key markers of children’s health which actively gets reported and measured by the Government is the health issue of overweight and obesity. I prepared this graph using the key findings from using these 3 government reports : Overweight and Obesity in Australia by the Australian Parliament in October 2006, Australia’s National Health Study 2014-2015 reported by Australian Bureau of Statistics and ABS Year Book 2009-2010.
If you look at the graph, you can see a very clear increase in the number of our kids between 5 and 17 who are overweight or obese. Let’s break this down:
- In 30 years between 1985 to 2015 – 16.15% increase in children overweight or obese
- In 20 years between 1995 to 2015 – 7% increase in children overweight or obese – this equated to approximately 600,000 children between 5 and 17 being overweight or obese.
Research shows 80% of children who are overweight or obese, will go into adulthood overweight or obese.
The Impact of Children’s Health on Tuckshops
The fact children’s health, particularly overweight and obesity, is such a big issue, has put added pressure on tuckshops. It is no longer considered acceptable for tuckshops to offer foods which contribute to the health issues facing children. Tuckshops need to provide children with food which nourishes their bodies and brains.
Home Life Has Changed
Home life has changed, the primary care-giver is now quite often in part or full time employment. The juggling act of getting ready for work, packing lunches, and getting the kids out to door for school is stressful. Many parents now resort to convenient packages for the lunchboxes or more frequent use of the tuckshop. This is consistent with the information we’ve gathered.
Q: Did Mums* work part time or full time?
20 years ago
Survey responses were about half and half between stay at home mums and part- or full-time working mums. Many responses also indicated their mum stayed at home for the first few years of school life, mainly because they had a younger sibling, then she went to work once all kids were at school.
*for ease, I wrote mums because 20 years ago, the primary carer role fell predominantly to mums. A handful of responses said their Dad packed lunches. This is still similar today.
Research shows “Among families with children aged under 18 years old, the proportion of mothers who were employed increased from 55% in 1991, to 56% in 1996, 59% in 2001, 63% in 2006 and 65% in 2011.” See graph below from Australian Institute of Family Studies – Parents Working Out Work. Surprisingly, I have struggled to find a more recent number than 2011, but trend wise, it’s likely this will have increased a couple of percentage points.
Q: What foods did you have in your lunchbox?
20 years ago
Survey responses indicated it lunchboxes included sandwiches, a piece of fruit and a snack, usually a home baked cake or a biscuit. Only a few mentioned having vegetables in their lunchbox. A few people commented their lunchbox was filled with packets or had a juice box.
My observations from school visits and talking to teachers is that it is common for a school lunchbox to have between 2-4 packets, a sandwich and a piece of fruit. Vegetables are not common in the average lunchbox.
It’s important to note, most of these 2-4 packets are what Australian Dietary Guidelines call discretionary foods. They are not part of the Five Food Groups. According to the guidelines, discretionary foods are “sometimes” or “in small amounts” foods. Today, these discretionary foods are everyday foods in our kids lunchboxes.
A small scale study we ran at a NSW school shows the packet food gets eaten first, followed by all or some of the sandwich. Fruit is often partially eaten, or sadly, thrown in the bin whole and untouched.
Q: How often would you get a lunch order from the tuckshop?
20 years ago
Survey responses indicated most kids only got to place a tuckshop order once a week, or once a month. Some only got to order once a term or once a year. Other kids (considered the lucky kids by many respondents!) may have been given money (20c or 50c) to buy something each day. Tuckshop orders were considered a treat, often to celebrate the start or the end of the week, or to give mum or dad the day off from packing lunches.
Most parents packed their kid’s lunchboxes every day. Parents considered it to be cheaper to make food at home compared to a tuckshop order. Some children packed their own lunches from age 10 onwards.
Talking to tuckshop owners or volunteers and teachers, they report many children are buying food from the tuckshop daily. Sometimes this is their recess or lunch, sometimes both.
Today when we visit schools, it is rare for a child not to have packaged food in their lunchbox. Some parents rely heavily on the tuckshop because they are too busy. Tuckshops report being swamped by lunch orders and seeing the same children every day. Other parents tell us they do not allow their kids to have tuckshop or rarely allow it, because of they consider the food unhealthy. In fact, in response to so many parents asking us for help with their tuckshop, we’ve teamed up with My School Connect this year because their speciality is helping schools transition to healthier tuckshops. This way we can put tuckshops in contact with people who can help them.
The Impact of Home Life Changes on Tuckshops
20 years ago, the tuckshop was considered a treat for a child and a break for the parent from packing lunchbox. It was acceptable for the tuckshop to sell foods which were considered sometimes food because children weren’t eating this sometimes food everyday in their lunchbox or outside of school. Today, busy and stressed parents are resorting to lunchboxes filled to processed packaged foods or using the tuckshop as a replacement for the lunchbox. As processed foods are much of every day life now, and the frequency of kids using the tuckshop has increased, it is no longer acceptable for tuckshops to be offer foods which aren’t healthy.
The Role Of The Tuckshop Has Changed
A tuckshop lady (let’s call her Fran) with 20+ years experience in tuckshops, recently told me how she’s seen Tuckshop life changed so much over the years.
20 years ago
These 3 points summarise what Fran had to say:
- The school tuckshop was a fun place to work. It was mostly run by volunteer mums and dads.
- Kids were filled with excitement about their tuckshop order because it was special. It didn’t happen every day.
- Canteen menus reflected this, and the food offered was not everyday food for these kids.
These points reflect what Fran has to say about running a tuckshop today.
- The school tuckshop is a regulated work environment, with state governments having guidelines as to what can be included on the menu, how often and how much. Then there’s food safety regulations too.
- Tuckshops today are businesses. They are profit driven. If run by the school or P&C, the canteen provides a boost to much needed funds. If the canteen is a tendered contract, then the business obviously needs to make a profit. Tuckshops sell what they know kids will buy, and what makes them money.
- Many kids get their recess and lunch from the tuckshop almost every day. The element of the tuckshop order being special and different to every other school day is no more for many kids.
- The tuckshop is (according to Fran) now doing the job of a parent, and is required to make sure children are eating a healthy lunch every day.
- Some canteens still offer many of the same foods from the old days, but regulations such as the traffic light system have seen some tuckshops add better options. This system is only supervised from a distance, so there are still a lot of schools with foods which are what should be an occasional or very restricted foods.
On the outside, tuckshops today may look the same as they did 20 years ago, but the way they are run and the issues they face are very different.
Q: What food was available at the tuckshop?
20 years ago
Below is an example of the food that was on offer. Remember, at this time, the parents were generally packing lunchboxes at home which included a sandwich, a piece of fruit and a home baked cake or biscuit as a snack. This tuckshop food really was sometimes food for most children.
- Pies, sausage rolls, pasties
- Sandwiches or rolls – from vegemite, egg through to salad
- Juices – frozen or drinkable
- Flavoured milks
- Lollies – mixed bags, musk sticks, cobbers, snakes, Wizz Fizz etc
- Packets of chips, Burger Rings, Cheezels, Twisties etc
- Chocolate bars – Mars Bars, Crunchies, Curly Wurlys
This Herald Sun article: “See The Dodgy 1982 Lunch Menu That Fed A Melbourne Primary School” by journalist Jamie Duncan, included this yellowed copy of a canteen menu:
This obviously varies from school to school, and from state to state.
Bondi Primary School and Kathy’s Kitchen are widely recognised as providing healthy nourishing and delicious tuckshop food. Both schools have proven kids love eating real food, and in fact, when they have learnt how good it tastes, they will choose it over the less healthy food.
Here’s a few other examples of canteen menus which use the traffic light system. I draw your attention to the drinks which are available. Given the amount of sugar the average child is now consuming, I do not believe there is a place for these kinds of drinks at the tuckshop. The best drink for our kids at school is water. If you want your kids to have these drinks, only allow them at home, and only occasionally.
Tuckshops Have Become Food Businesses
Sometime around 2010, State Governments started implemented policies recognising Tuckshops as a Food Service Business, and they need to be registered as such. The policies and guidelines for Tuckshops varies by State and in many cases, by tuckshop within the State. Each State has a set of guidelines to help tuckshop managers make healthier food and drink choices for the canteens. Most States follow a traffic light system:
- Green foods – these foods can be available everyday
- Amber foods – these foods mean you should select them carefully, and should not be available every day
- Red foods – these foods were not recommended, and only allowed occasionally.
Many of the amber foods are what Australian Dietary Guidelines would call discretionary foods. The guidelines say these are foods for only sometimes and in small amounts.
The problem with the Traffic Light system is twofold.
- Firstly, it’s based on 2003 Australian Dietary Guidelines which are very outdated. For instance, the guidelines still promote low-fat products, which we now know are loaded with excessive amounts of sugar. Research shows sugar is addictive and is contributing to many of today’s modern health issues.
- Secondly, there are government-funded departments (e.g. the “Healthy Eating Advisory Service” in Victoria) who have the role of “encouraging” school tuckshops to follow the traffic light system, but they do not have the power to do anything to enforce the guidelines, and are effectively a bunch of toothless tigers.
All this means that, in practice, tuckshop menus vary widely. Many schools are offering a range of healthy options, which is fantastic. However, many schools still offer amber and red foods frequently, as well as items which were available on the menu 20 years ago.
The NSW Government needs to be acknowledged for taking the problem of childhood obesity seriously. They recognise the role the tuckshop plays in the life of our kids today and are trying to address the issue of food on the tuckshop menu. They have announced a move away from the Traffic Light System to a Food and Drink Benchmarking System, which includes Everyday Foods and Occasional Foods. The problem here is that the Occasional Foods list relies on Health Star Rating System, which is grossly flawed.
If you want a great explanation as to why this system is flawed, read this article by Peter FitzSimons. It is also not clear if this new system is actually enforceable by any government department. Again, it begs the question as to whether there will be any consequences if tuckshops do not follow the system.
A few further problems with the Traffic Light System:
- I also read that this benchmarking system maintains the rule of “Sugary drinks continue to NOT BE SOLD in school canteens or vending machines”. What do they deem to be sugary drinks? Because under the traffic light system, flavoured milks, Up & Go, Sports Drinks and Juice Boxes are all allowed. When you read the nutritional panel of these, they all contain 3+ teaspoons of sugar!
- Another thing is the State Guidelines appear to only apply to public schools. Although many of the Catholic and Private Schools we have visited also seem to follow a traffic light kind of system.
The Impact of the Tuckshop’s Changing Role
When tuckshops became recognised as a food service business, the environment became more regulated. Menu’s started to change, but it wasn’t enforceable with consequences. Many schools continued to offer foods which they knew children would buy even though these foods aren’t great for children’s health. But it’s a business, so it needs to make money. In addition to this, some of the foods allowed on the menu by the Australian Dietary Guidelines are questionable.
It was ok for the tuckshop of 20+ years ago to serve food which is now deemed amber, red or occasional food because kids did not each much of this food. Parents allowed their kids to have tuckshop order as a treat. Today though, the pressure for tuckshop menus to be healthy is under the spotlight more than ever before because of the state of children’s health and because many parents are so busy that the tuckshop is an easier option than packing school lunchboxes.
Can Healthy Tuckshops Be Profitable?
A tuckshop business is like any business; it needs to make a profit, or be subsidised by another profitable business. As Government Guidelines become more strict about the kinds of foods allowed on a tuckshop menu, there have been lots of commentators (journalists, politicians, tuckshop owners or co-ordinators, and even parents) saying kids won’t buy fruits and vegetables, so tuckshops will go out of business.
Please know there are many schools now with healthy tuckshop menus which are profitable. Tuckshops like Canteen Bondi, Kathy’s Kitchen, Coombabah State School and more are proving tuckshops can be profitable whilst selling healthy food which the children love.
In terms of the school lunchbox, we believe the key is making this food available and normal for kids.
Our small scale lunchbox study at a NSW school shows when real food is made available, and all kids are trying it, kids who normally wouldn’t eat it, do. And they like it. We intend to a more complete study of the whole school in term 4 to prove kids will eat real food when it’s available and their peers are eating it. We also intend to show this will have a positive impact on behaviour, focus and concentration in class, plus a positive improvement in how children eat fruits and vegetables at home. Stay tuned for more information on this soon.
Where To Get Support
If you’d like help with your tuckshop:
I am an Ambassador for The Tuckshop Revolution. It’s a grass roots movement by our National Partner, My School Connect, aimed at supporting tuckshops to transition and modernise their tuckshop menu. Join the Tuckshop Revolution here. One of the My School Connect’s team will contact you to help you get started.
If you’d like help understanding how to read packet labels
These 2 articles will help you.
If you’d like help packing healthy lunchboxes
If you’re busy parent but really want to pack healthy lunchboxes, then you might be interested in joining The 5 Minute Healthy Lunchbox System eCourse. It’s a 5 week, online, self paced eCourse which teaches you a simple system that will allow you to pack multiple lunchboxes in about 5 minutes a day. It includes over recipes and 12 weeks of menu plans and shopping lists. Plus you have access to a great member only Facebook community and to me of course.
And if you’re like some of the other 400 busy who have completed the eCourse, you can end up with the bonus of teaching your kids how to pack their own lunchboxes too.
Other questions to consider
As I have been writing this article, some questions I don’t have answers too came up. I’d love to hear your views on these, so please pop them in the comments.
- Why do busy working parents today, find it harder to pack simple healthy lunchboxes, than the busy working parents of 20 years ago?
- Why do parents today consider it’s cheaper to pack convenience foods or have a tuckshop order than to make healthy lunchboxes at home?
- Have we made lunchboxes too complicated today? 20 years ago, kids survived on a sandwich, a piece of fruit and a home made cake.
Sources used in this post:
- ABS Year Book 2009-2010
- Overweight and Obesity in Australia by the Australian Parliament in October 2006
- Australia’s National Health Study 2014-2015
- Australian Institute For Family Studies – Families then and now – 1980 to 2010
- Australian Institute For Family Studies – Parents Working Out Work
- The Good Food Guide – How Australia Eats. The Ultimate Pie Chart
- Herald Sun – See the Dodgy 1982 Canteen Menu of a Melbourne School
- Nutri Kids – Stop or Go: traffic light system
- Choice – School Canteen Logos On Snack Food
- Healthy Kids Association – School Canteens
- Real Food, Real You – Lunchboxing in the 1970’s without Pinterest
- Australian Health and Welfare – Asthma in Australian Children
- ABS – mums in the workforce
- ABC News – Qld’s Best School Tuckshop Reveals Its Secrets
- Facebook Survey Questions – here and here