In the Mississauga headquarters of Chartwells Canada, the industry leader in school cafeteria catering, nutritionist Donna Bottrell uses a giant spreadsheet to make sense of provincial food guidelines as thick as legal documents. The spreadsheet helps Chartwells track where items such as French fries can be served daily, once a week, in baked form only, or not at all.
French fries used to be the gravy of high school cafeterias. But as bans on junk foods such as candy bars roll out in provinces across Canada, deep-fried potatoes are becoming forbidden fruit - and evidence of the nation's piecemeal approach to school nutrition. "Every policy has its own quirks," Ms. Bottrell says.
The food industry has a giant stake in school nutrition. About a third of all high school cafeterias in Canada are run by private caterers, such as Chartwells, a subsidiary of the U.K.-based Compass Group, and Aramark, another international conglomerate. Most cafeterias feed a third of the student body. And across the country, cash-strapped school boards are under pressure to farm out lunch rooms that don't turn a profit.
Chartwells alone services 900 Canadian schools, of which the majority are high schools. The massive company has clout with policy makers in several provinces, according to Chartwells president Ross Munro. When Ontario was drafting new food legislation, he says, Chartwells made a list of items that wouldn't make the cut, including a whole-wheat bagel with too much sugar.
It was a back-and-forth process, he says. "We had the ear of the ministry."
Bill Jeffery, national co-ordinator for the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, questions whether the food industry's stake in nutritional guidelines benefits students' health. He calls the industry's place at the table "profoundly problematic."
But in the war against childhood obesity, there's little evidence that the food services industry is the evil empire. In Ontario, cafeterias run by Chartwells and Aramark often outshine school-run food services in the Eat Smart! awards given by the Ontario Public Health Association.
For private companies such as Chartwells, the challenge is to comply with labyrinthine nutrition standards, province to province, while continuing to entice students with foods they crave. Ms. Bottrell shares a trick of the trade. "Things like putting three chocolate chips on a bran muffin will get the kids to eat that bran muffin," she says.
Menus from the same caterer can vary wildly, however. Students may be served tilapia with brown rice and vegetables in one Chartwells cafeteria, but mainly pizza, sandwiches and iceberg lettuce salads in another. What ends up on the cafeteria tray is determined by provincial guidelines, as well as contractual agreements with schools, Mr. Munro explains. Some schools expect a share of cafeteria sales, up in the double digits. Others forego profits to keep prices low and food quality high, he says. "It's all over the map."
Despite sluggish sales in some regions after junk foods were phased out, Chartwells reports annual growth in recent years of 5 per cent.
Stricter food rules don't guarantee better eating habits in school cafeterias, Mr. Jeffery points out. Provincial guidelines generally divide foods into categories such as "choose most," "choose sometimes" and "not recommended." Regulations may limit the choices of foods on cafeteria menus, "but they don't have any effect of limiting the sales" of foods from less desirable categories, he says.
In B.C., for example, a slice of pepperoni pizza fits into the "choose sometimes" category, even though it contains 940 milligrams of sodium - more than half the intake of 1,500 milligrams a day recommended by Health Canada.
And there's nothing to stop a kid from ordering a slice or two of pizza every day.
Nevertheless, foods from the "choose sometimes" category are an improvement over the sugar-laden baked goods and fried foods now prohibited in B.C. schools, says Julie Stephenson, a dietitian and food services manager at the Surrey School District.
She applauds Canuel Caterers, which runs 50 school cafeterias in British Columbia, for coming up with healthier versions of traditional fast foods. "They've worked very hard."
Complying with B.C. guidelines was no piece of cake, according to the company's co-owner, Glenn Canuel. The catering firm had to find sodium-reduced sauces to use in fried rice and chow mein, shrink portion sizes of burgers and oven-baked fries, and work with manufacturers to develop healthier cookies and cinnamon buns.
"It was time consuming," he says, "but we keep our menus small and we make it work."
Students tend to rebel against drastic changes to cafeteria menus, Ms. Bottrell says. In Chartwells cafeterias, items such as pizza and chicken Caesar salad wraps remained top sellers after the company tweaked recipes slightly to reduce sodium and fat.
Ms. Bottrell adds that students haven't minded the shift toward whole-wheat sandwiches and pizza crust. She suggests it's because their parents are buying whole grains.
"What's happening at home has a very big impact on what we serve," she says.