'Hands off our pies': Australian parents reject school canteen revolution

Meat pies are an Australian favourite. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Meat pies are an Australian favourite. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Who doesn't fondly recall their school tuckshop days?

I remember jostling for position at the counter, six kids wide and six kids deep, with a fervour I've not since repeated at any bar serving alcohol.

With whatever meagre savings I'd managed to scrape together ironing shirts or mowing lawns, I'd line up daily to buy up big on Redskins (immune to their racist overtones), fruit balls (containing, in hindsight, highly questionable levels of actual fruit) and Milkybars ("The Milkybars are on me!").

Lest you think I survived on snacks alone, our canteen also offered an array of substantial lunch options, my favourite being a lasagne of such cheesy-intensity and crisp outer-crusting I have sadly not enjoyed the likes of since.

As often as I could, I'd nag mum to allow me the $2 required to slip into a brown paper bag – folded over and labelled clearly with my name and classroom – so I could have that delicious dish delivered, piping hot, to me come lunch bell time.

For variety of diet, I'd alternate this occasionally with a meat pie, sausage roll or collection of party pies, all plastered liberally with "marty" sauce, and washed down with pink milk guzzled straight from the carton.

Unless, of course, it was footy finals season, a period during which all Canberran children are peer-pressured into the patriotic – if unpleasant – display of purchasing "Raiders Lime" – a green-coloured milk which tasted, mercifully, more of sugar than of actual lime. But still ... blergh.

It's not hard to see why canteen purchases – being some of the first spending decisions we will ever make – come with a delicious thrill.

And it's also not surprising to see that, when you put money in the pockets of children, we don't make the best food choices.

But perhaps it is surprising that, when we grow up and become parents, making decisions for our children, we don't make the best ones either. At least not from the point of view of our children's growing waistlines.

It is a sad fact that one in four Australian children are overweight, following in their footsteps of their parents, of whom fully two-thirds are overweight.

You would think parents would be keen to make healthier choices for their children.

But not so, according to the results of a survey revealed at an economics conference this week.

The study, titled "The School Canteen Revolution – what food options to parents want", was conducted by private research group CaPPRe and enlisted 421 parents or caregivers of primary school children into an online survey.

Parents were offered a series of choice for canteen menus, which began with "healthy" foods, and progressively added more choices of less healthy and unhealthy foods.

Parents were offered a choice of an entirely health lunch menu, comprising a selection of sandwiches, wraps and salads, or two more menus, one which added a less healthy selection of sushi, rice and pasta dishes, and then a final menu adding in pies, sausage rolls, chicken nuggets and hot chips.

Snack menu options began with just fresh fruit, then added in popcorn, pretzels, cakes, muffins, icy-poles, muesli bars, and then chips and lolly bags.

So, did parents opt for the healthy choices for their kids' canteen? Or the wider selection of foods?

After looking at the results, the researchers were able to divide parents into four groups, based on their choices.

By far the biggest group – at 43 per cent – were labelled the "pro options" group. These parents chose the highest level of unrestricted options – for both meals and snacks – for their children.

The second group – at 20 per cent of parents – were labelled as "pro options meals". Like the first group, they also supported unrestricted meal choices, but preferred to have a more limited choice for snacks.

That is, given a choice, the overwhelming majority of parents supported food choice over healthy diets.

The third group – comprising 12 per cent of parents – were more hard-core, labelled "pro-healthy everything". These parents preferred choice restricted to healthy-only options for both meals and snacks.

A final "pro healthy snacks" group of parents – 25 per cent – expressed neither strong support for meal choice or restriction, but strongly supported canteens offering only healthy snacks.

Interestingly, however, almost all of the parents surveyed were against offering soft drinks.

Simon Fifer, the director of research at CaPPRe, says it's not entirely a shock that parents would openly choose to expose their kids to more unhealthy meal and snack options.

 "I don't think we were overly surprised, because that's what we know happens in the real world. There seems to be a group of very health-conscious parents, but then there's the majority who stick with the status quo."

Fifer says the result presents a challenge for policymakers hoping to nudge parents and children into healthier choices.

While support for banning sugary drinks is clearer cut, parents seem reluctant to deny their children the food choices they enjoyed growing up.

You can take our soft drinks, but you will never take our meat pies.

This story originally appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.


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