Fri | Apr 12, 2024

Deborah Chen | Let’s talk obesity and need for healthy school food environments

Published:Sunday | March 3, 2024 | 12:09 AM
Representational image of schoolchildren eating lunch. Deborah Chen writes: It is imperative to lay utmost importance on the prevention of obesity in children and herald its progress.
Representational image of schoolchildren eating lunch. Deborah Chen writes: It is imperative to lay utmost importance on the prevention of obesity in children and herald its progress.
Deborah Chen
Deborah Chen
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This World Obesity Day, observed annually on March 4, the Heart Foundation of Jamaica is imploring Jamaicans to join in the conversation and let’s talk about obesity and the need for healthy school food environments. It is incumbent that we intensify the need for a comprehensive approach to curbing the increasing trends in overweight/obesity in Jamaica, especially our youth.

The Jamaica Health and Lifestyle Survey III (2016-2017) reports that one out of two Jamaicans aged 15 and older are overweight/obese (54 per cent). Data from the 2017 Global School-based Student Health Survey shows that 23.3 per cent of Jamaican students aged 13-17 years are overweight and/or obese. This survey also highlights that childhood obesity in Jamaica has increased by 68.3 per cent in seven years, with three out of 10 of our children aged 13-17 being overweight/obese, and rates that are almost doubling for boys. It is thus imperative to lay utmost importance on the prevention of obesity in children and herald its progress.

Now that we have some background data on the ever-growing obesity trends in Jamaican youth, let’s jog our memories a bit. In May 2022, there was much buzz among school administrators, parents and civil society groups, around the announcement of the introduction of a national school nutrition policy, produced by the Government of Jamaica through the ministries of Education and Youth (MOEY) and Health & Wellness (MOHW), aimed at providing a national framework that promotes and facilitates healthy eating habits and a physically active lifestyle among our youth to reduce the increasing rates of obesity by 2030.

Following this announcement, the green paper was placed online by the Ministry of Education for public review and comments. Scores of key players in the food and beverage industry, school administrators, concessionaires, teachers, vendors, parents and even students/youth from across the island, showed up and showed out at the series of consultation sessions hosted by both ministries, held between July and October 2022 for said policy. These consultations allowed stakeholders to voice their concerns and share any important aspect they feel should be included in this national school nutrition policy to make it complete. Despite some backlash from some school administrators and others amid concerns and suggestions raised during consultations, Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton urged legislators “to work together to respond to this crisis being faced by our children”.

FINALISING AND IMPLEMENTING

The next step in the process of finalising and implementing this well-needed policy is the amended document to be submitted to Cabinet for approval to become a white paper. The Ministry of Education previously indicated that the policy would be ready by August 2023 to allow for implementation in the new academic year. In a Radio Jamaica audio excerpt from the post-Cabinet media briefing on Wednesday, October 4, 2023, Dr Christopher Tufton stated that a consultant is compiling the final report for submission to Cabinet, and that the intention is to have that document completed before the end of the year for it to then go to Parliament for approval before April 2024.

It is, however, concerning that the 2023/2024 back-to-school pronouncements made by the minister of education had not included any word about the policy. Echoing the concerns raised by former country representative of UNICEF Jamaica, Mariko Kagoshima, in The Gleaner May 2022, schools have reopened for face-to-face learning, but the National School Nutrition Policy is yet to be finalised, putting our children’s health and well-being at further risk!

How much longer will we have to wait for the finalisation and implementation of this national commitment to improve and prioritise the health of children in Jamaica? Addressing the detrimental effects of childhood obesity, which Jamaica is already grappling with, is only one side of the coin. The other side is that undernourished children have been shown to have learning impairment in development and behaviour, resulting in poor concentration, difficulty focusing and low academic performance, strong points raised by both me and Jamaica-born, US-based paediatrician, Dr Melaine McLean, in The Sunday Gleaner in February and May 2023, respectively. This is as the National School Nutrition Policy aims to address this inequity by tackling short-term hunger, particularly in low-income and vulnerable students.

COLLECTIVE ACTION

The pillars of World Obesity Day underpin the need for ongoing conversations about obesity, the need for collective action and the role everyone can play in reducing obesity. With increasing awareness of obesity’s impacts on health, finances, and Jamaica at large, it has come to the forefront for the development of health policies to address the associated challenges. Good nutrition is crucial for optimising health, development and academic performance. Because children and youth consume a significant proportion of their daily energy intake while in school, measures targeting school nutrition may lead to beneficial changes in health outcomes, academic performance and most importantly, dietary behaviours.

Research also shows that schools are also a common setting for pervasive food marketing by ultra-processed food companies globally, through tactics such as branded content and sponsorships, which impact upon the food preferences and behaviours of children and youth. With the rates of obesity constantly increasing in Jamaican youth, schools can play an important role in the prevention of obesity. Reaching children and adolescents at an age when health behaviours are shaped, and the onset of disease prevented, may be most effective method of intervention.

The time to act is now. Our children are depending on us to create a safe and healthy environment for them to grow, thrive and become productive adults. We eagerly await the implementation of this pioneering policy, as it stands as a starting point to improve the health of our children and in turn the nation. It is imperative that the Government of Jamaica give our children a healthy start by implementing the National School Nutrition Policy without further delay.

Deborah Chen is the executive director of the Heart Foundation of Jamaica. Send feedback to ghapjm@gmail.com