Coffee makers, instant coffee and thermoses filled with double ventis have become back-to-school essentials for students who are struggling to come to terms with a ban on caffeine beverages in Ontario’s school cafeterias.
As part of a new food and beverage policy that came into effect last week, coffee, tea, caffeinated sodas and energy drinks have been banished from lunch rooms across the province, and high-school students are stocking their lockers with the paraphernalia of caffeine junkies.
With its new policy, Ontario has joined several other provinces that have taken a hard line against caffeine, either by banning it or putting strict limits on what can be sold on school property, in the cafeteria or at fundraisers. In British Columbia, a 15-mg-per-serving limit on caffeine means that chocolate milk barely avoids being culinary contraband, and students in Nova Scotia can buy only milk, 100-per-cent juice and water at school.
Policy makers are erring on the side of caution in response to concerns that caffeine can be mood-altering in teens, making them irritable, tired and prone to distraction. Or at least, more so than usual. The idea behind the move is that good habits start young, but in a country that embraces Tim Hortons as part of its national fabric, keeping kids away from caffeine is nearly impossible.
Students are plugging in coffee makers next to their lockers, and buying instant coffee at the local corner store near the Etobicoke School of the Arts in Toronto’s west end.
“I think overall people will drink less coffee, but a lot of them are mad and they’re falling asleep in class,” said Jacques St. Pierre, 17, president of the school’s student council.
The research on how caffeine affects teens is mixed, said Lauren Davidson, a Toronto-based dietitian: There is evidence that small amounts of caffeine can benefit adults by improving concentration, but also that it can harm children by making them irritable or nervous.
“The evidence is inconclusive, so [policy makers]are going with better safe than sorry,” she said.
Caffeine is a stimulant and has been linked to insomnia, a hazard for an age group notorious for struggling with early school day starts. There is also concern that students filling up on coffee aren’t getting beverages such as milk, which is especially important because teenagers are building peak bone density.
The principal at ESA, Rob MacKinnon, spent the first week of school fielding questions from perturbed, caffeine-deprived students. They welcomed the healthier options the new food and beverage policy has introduced into the cafeteria, but mourned the loss of their favourite drink.
“They get the baked French fries, but the coffee they’re struggling with,” he said.
As Mr. MacKinnon toured the hallways on Tuesday afternoon near the end of lunch period, students stuffed tea bags and containers of Maxwell House back into their lockers.
“Sir, you’re going to see a 10-per-cent decline in my average because of a lack of coffee,” 16-year-old Odessa Kelebay said.
The ban has even stoked conspiracy theories. Mr. Kelebay asked Mr. MacKinnon if the rumours were true that teachers had a secret stash of freshly brewed coffee somewhere in the school, an allegation the principal denied.
“Say the word ‘coffee’ around here, and people are like, ‘Where? Can you get me some?’” Mr. St. Pierre said.
Elizabeth Witmer, Ontario’s Tory education critic, said that instead of a ban, schools should educate students about the potential hazards of caffeine and let them decide.
“It’s pretty much a part of the daily lives of people and we have the trust the judgment of students in secondary school,” she said.
That was the initial reaction that People for Education heard from Ontario parents. They were concerned that the provincial government was sticking its nose where it didn’t belong.
But as school resumed this fall, the mood had shifted, said Annie Kidder, executive director of the advocacy group.
“It’s sending a message to kids that there are things that you should not be consuming in large quantities,” she said.
Which doesn’t mean that she doesn’t sympathize with Mr. St. Pierre and his peers.
“I totally feel their pain, because I’m a huge tea drinker and I’d be really sad if someone told me I couldn’t drink tea.”
HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH?
In the war on caffeine in schools, energy drinks have emerged as the No. 1 enemy, and they’ve been banned for years in most parts of the country.
The caffeine content is very high, and there is a concern that teens could be tempted to blend them with alcohol.
Lower on the caffeinated totem pole, when it comes to tea and sodas with moderate amounts of caffeine, policies are more mixed.
Beverages and their caffeine content
Decaffeinated coffee: 4 mg/350 mL
Chocolate milk: 14 mg/500 mL
Colas and some root beers: 36-46 mg/can
Tea, black or green: 8-55 mg/240 mL
Espresso (from arabica beans): 40 mg/30 mL
Coffee (variety of brews): 177-268 mg/350 mL
Source: B.C. Ministry of Education, Caffeine and the Student Body