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Are healthy school lunches driving your kids to junk? Add to ...

In the leafy surrounds of Kerrisdale, an old-money enclave on Vancouver's west side, Point Grey Secondary School is losing the junk food war.

Two years ago the student cafeteria revamped its menu to meet British Columbia's new food regulations for schools. Salads now have reduced-sodium dressing, cookies contain less sugar and potatoes are baked, not fried.

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But when the lunch bell rings, Point Grey students swarm to the neighbouring McDonald's, 7-Eleven, Frankies Candy Bar, and Flying Wedge, where $3.50 buys a "student combo" of a pizza slice and pop that add up to 900 calories.

Healthier cafeteria fare, such as a $3.50 low-fat chicken wrap, can't compete, says Glenn Canuel, co-owner of Canuel Caterers, the private company in charge of the school's food services.

Cafeteria sales at Point Grey have dipped 30 per cent since the province tightened its food rules in 2008, Mr. Canuel says. Now that B.C. schools can no longer sell junk food, "kids are going off campus for it."

Across Canada, school catering companies are reporting sales losses of 10 to 30 per cent in many regions where candy bars, soft drinks and deep-fried foods have been banned. Schools that share profits from food sales are also taking a hit.

After a decade of nutrition crusaders pushing for healthier food choices, the fight against childhood obesity is more daunting than ever. One in four Canadian children is overweight or obese. From coast to coast, doctors and dietitians are sounding the alarm about the rising health costs that a dangerously overweight country will have to bear. In September, provincial and territorial health ministers - in tandem with federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq - released a framework for action on childhood obesity.

But it may be that students have been left out of the loop, in the rush to educate schools, parent groups and private caterers about new food legislation, says Julie Stephenson, a registered dietitian and food services manager for Surrey School District in British Columbia.

"Students don't know why things have changed," she says.

At the provincial level, nutrition standards that eliminate trans fats and reduce sugar and sodium in foods sold in schools are a patchwork effort. Food guidelines are mandatory in British Columbia, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Quebec has prohibited the sale of deep-fried foods and soft drinks on high-school grounds. In Ontario, schools face a deadline of September, 2011, to comply with the province's new school food and beverage policy.

Other provinces and territories have voluntary standards except the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, which lack formal guidelines.

Schools in British Columbia have made "significant progress" in offering healthy food and beverage choices, according to a review earlier this year by the B.C. Ministry of Education.

But healthy food choices have had unintended consequences. Gas stations and convenience stores are cashing in on students' discontent, Ms. Stephenson says. "We see local corner stores converting so that they can provide pizza."

Poor cafeteria sales forced Chartwells Canada, the country's largest high-school catering operation, to pull out of about a dozen schools in New Brunswick. The losses are due to declining enrolment and stricter food rules, Chartwells president Ross Munro says. "We're telling 18-year-old kids what they're going to eat - think about it."

Despite the exodus from cafeterias, dietitians including Ms. Stephenson support the trend toward school nutrition legislation.

Schools have a responsibility to educate children about nutrition and provide healthy food choices, says Janice MacDonald, communications director for Dietitians of Canada. Ideally, Canada would have national guidelines, she says.

Ms. MacDonald adds that obesity has many causes, included sedentary lifestyles and aggressive marketing of unhealthy foods to children. "We can't depend on schools to be the complete or only solution."

Children get hooked on junk food by eating frozen dinners and take-out meals at home, says Paul Finkelstein, a culinary arts teacher at Stratford Northwestern Secondary School in Ontario. A surprising number of kids have cash in their pockets to spend on chips and chocolate bars, he points out. "I blame the parents."

Role-modelling can go both ways, however. When children learn to prepare dishes such as moussaka at the Screaming Avocado - the café Mr. Finkelstein runs as part of his culinary arts program - many students convince their parents to provide healthier foods at home, he says.

A growing number of teacher-run cafeterias are getting creative. Some school districts have a local Jamie Oliver, the celebrity chef who drove junk food out of British schools. Teens are learning to cook from scratch in more than a dozen high-school teaching cafeterias in British Columbia, and Farm to School programs inspired by the locavore movement are taking root across Canada.

As cafeterias get better at developing appealing recipes that comply with provincial standards, students' palates will adapt to eating less salt, sugar and fat, dietitians say.

Tomorrow's high-school freshmen won't remember the deep-frying days, says Donna Bottrell, director of nutrition for Chartwells.

"We see the glimmer of hope in the elementary schools," she says. "These are going to be different kids."

Follow on Twitter: @AdrianaBarton

 

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