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A french toast sandwich with bacon and fried cheese.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

On paper, The Healthy Schools Strategy reads like a perfectly reasonable solution to a vexing problem: Nearly one in three Canadian students are overweight, and 12 per cent are obese.

The fix: better nutrition and more exercise. The Ontario government concluded that the best place to battle the bulge was in schools. It introduced strict new food and beverage policies in 2010 coupled with mandatory exercise. The result, according to Ontario's Auditor-General, has been a $12-million bust.

Lesson One: Kids won't buy food they don't like. When cafeterias purged French fries and burgers, students simply bought them elsewhere. Cafeteria sales plunged up to 45 per cent.

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Lesson Two: School principals have better things to do than check the nutritional contents of food and drinks in vending machines. Principals were often left to complete onerous forms to determine whether the contents of vending machines met nutritional guidelines, an epic waste of their time. As a result, a lot of cafeteria food falls short. A bowl of soup sold at one school, for instance, contained twice the amount of fat allowed.

Lesson Three: It's difficult to walk and chew broccoli at the same time. Teachers rightly point out that it can be difficult to work an extra 20 minutes of exercise into a school day that's supposed to be focused on reading and math. Besides, they told the auditors, the new exercise policies "did not appear to have had a significant impact on students' activity levels."

The Healthy Schools Strategy is a striking example of how the best-intentioned of strategies aren't enough to yield the best results. Social Policy 101, it turns out, is no bird course.

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