It was a noble policy aimed at combatting childhood obesity.
French fries, burgers and chicken nuggets were all banished from school cafeterias across Ontario, and replaced with healthier fare. Chocolate bars and pop also disappeared from school vending machines.
But the Ontario government's much-vaunted Healthy Schools strategy – part of former premier Dalton McGuinty's platform in the 2007 election campaign – has been a dismal failure, says the provincial auditor in her 2013 annual report.
Students have abandoned the school cafeteria, Ontario Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk says in her report, released on Tuesday.
"High-school principals told us that many students head to fast-food places instead," Ms. Lysyk said.
At schools in three boards visited by auditors, the report says, cafeteria sales plunged by 25 to 45 per cent after the province introduced healthier food choices in 2010. Vending machine sales dropped even further – by as much as 85 per cent.
The idea behind the policy was to ban junk food high in fat, salt or sugar from school cafeteria menus. But at one unidentified school where the auditors sampled the cafeteria fare, many menu items did not meet the nutritional criteria, the report says. A bowl of soup, for example, contained twice the amount of fat allowed under the Healthy Schools strategy.
The government introduced the policy to tackle a dramatic increase in the number of overweight children. Nearly one in three students is overweight, says the auditor's report. And almost 12 per cent are considered obese – nearly twice as many as in the late 1970s.
But the auditor says in her report that neither the Ministry of Education nor the school boards have monitored the food and drinks sold in cafeterias to ensure that they comply with the government's nutrition standards.
As well, the auditor says, there is no formal monitoring to ensure that students in Grades 1 to 8 get 20 minutes of daily physical activity as prescribed under the Healthy Schools strategy.
Education Minister Liz Sandals defended the initiative, saying the government has made great strides in creating healthier schools.
"There is always more to do, and we will continue to build on the gains we've made by working with our partners to explore further opportunities to promote healthy living in our schools," Ms. Sandals said in a statement.