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What you can do to get sugar out of your school canteen

school canteen
Photo by: inxti/ thinkstock

As you might recall, Sarah teamed up last year with Dr Kieron Rooney, a senior lecturer in exercise physiology and biochemistry and a registered nutritionist at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Health Sciences, to conduct a study on the health and dietary behaviour outcomes of I Quit Sugar 8-Week Program participants (results that we’re excited to share with you in the not too distant future).

Sarah and Kieron meet up regularly to chat sugar science and developments and recently she fell off her café stool with joy to hear Kieron’s on a crusade to get sugar out of school canteens. We feel many of you would like to join him in this and have provided details on how to do so below.

You might have noticed:

We’ve started a series of “Make a Difference” posts that flag campaigns that you can get engaged in. Where we can we’ll be making this as easy as possible for you. Last week we invited you to wade into the WHO sugar guidelines developments (you still can, until March 31, here).

We asked Kieron to explain the importance of his campaign and why schools don’t recognise sugar as part of their nutritional canteen policies:

School canteens don’t comply with national guidelines – INSANE!

  • The foods for sale in school canteens across Australia are meant to comply with government policies but these are commonly ignored by schools and government does not check compliance.
  • Sugar is being ignored in schools. Current school canteen guidelines are based on the outdated 2003 National Dietary guidelines that assessed foods as: Green: everyday foods. Amber: occasional foods. Red: not to be sold foods. This was built on the basis of total energy and saturated fat, sodium and fibre content… but not sugar!
  • The national guidelines were updated. Canteens were not. When the dietary guidelines were updated in 2013, foods and drinks containing added sugars were shifted into the “limited intake” category. This was NOT applied to school canteens.

This needs to be updated NOW. Sugar must be recognised as a nutrient (if anyone on the planet can still call it as such) to be “limited”.

Some shocking factoids:

These figures are based on The Parents Jury* survey.

  • 38 % of secondary school canteen menus feature soft drinks. This is despite at least two states – VIC and NSW – specifically banning sugar-sweetened beverages in schools over five years ago!
  • Over 96% of surveyed schools feature pastries as a regular part of the menu. To put that in perspective one chocolate croissant contains about 3 teaspoons of sugar, which is already the recommended daily intake for kids, half for adults.
  • Over half of the surveyed canteens feature red-rated foods. This includes chocolate and other forms of confectionary.
  • Secondary schools have more red items on their menus than primary schools. (With the exception of South Australia.) 

What can you do?

We need to take control!

We can’t rely on schools to initiate change. Sarah says this a lot: legislative and industry change is going to be long and slow – we have to be the change ourselves and for our kids. Read more about this here. We certainly can’t rely on government to react. The recent health star rating debacle is a good indication of why.

As long as we are allowing foods with added sugars for sale in our school canteens, we’re knowingly exposing children to an increased risk of rotting teeth, obesity and the potential development of other metabolic diseases like diabetes.

An estimated 25 per cent of Australian children between 2-16 years old are overweight or obese.

Kieron has drafted a letter, which you can find here, requesting an urgent “Call to action” for the review of all existing canteen guidelines across Australian States and Territories in regards to the sale of sugary foods.

If you agree sugar is a potential danger to the healthy development of children you can put your name to this letter by filling out the form below. You have until Friday March 28.

The IQS Team will then forward the letter, with your signatures, to:

  • Federal Ministers for Health Peter Dutton and Fiona Nash and Federal Minister for Education Christopher Pyne.
  • Federal Shadow Minister for Health Catherine King and Federal Shadow Minister for Education and Early Childhood Kate Ellis.
  • All relevant state Health and Educations Ministers.
  • Each state Opposition Leader.


You can write your own letter to your state MP. Not sure who they are? Follow this link.

I support an urgent "call to action" for the review of all existing canteen guidelines across Australian States and Territories to include a specified limit to added sugar content as a criteria for foods sold in schools, with a view to dramatically reduce sugar intake amongst children.

Your Name (required)

Your Email (required)

Your State (required)

A free public forum

If you’re interested in learning about Kieron’s insights into the health of our school canteens and his proposed steps forward, he will be holding a free lecture at Sydney Uni next Wednesday night March 26, titled “Sugar Sweetened Schools: A Supply Chain to Childhood Obesity”. This is a free event, but you will need to register if you wish to attend.

*The Parents Jury is an online network of parents, grandparents and carers, interested in improving the food and activity environments of Australian children. Their Fame and Shame Awards are priceless – well worth a look.

Please be respectful of other participants in the conversation. We'd love you to keep your comments respectful, friendly and relevant. Differences of opinion are welcome, but trolling and abuse of other commentators and the IQS editorial team is not and will result in blacklisting.

  • Clare Walpole

    Love your work! This is such an important issue for Australia’s future and its awesome that you make it easy to get on the advocacy bandwagon

  • Kylie

    I worked recently on my daughters school canteen (secondary school). My daughter and I have both been doing Sugar free diets, so it was of much interest to me to look at the ingredients of the produce. It didn’t annoy me that there were muffins, cake, lollies etc available as to me people know that they contain sugar and can therefore take responsibility for eating that. What did annoy me was the hidden sugars in the produce they served such as the “healthy salad sandwiches” the bread was full of added sugar!! Then I proceeded to look at the pies and sausages rolls on offer, all containing sugar! The salads contained dressing with added sugar. So when my daughter cam to visit me at the school canteen and said “What can I eat” there was only one option…..a packeted (freshly made) salad with egg, but i warned her not to add the dressing. There were however other other options such as roasted veggies available but I was not impressed by the Canola oil it was cooked in. I discovered a lot that day that made me realise how much hidden sugar people were eating without knowing it and therefore were consuming way more sugar than they new. To me the hidden sugars is what should be banned in school canteens, so when you order a healthy Salad sandwich thats exactly what you get, not a sugar loaded one.

  • Teepee Learning

    I have signed this and shared it on my business page (Teepee Learning – healthy learning for kids) this is so important. Thanks for this.

  • Kate Thopre

    Signed & shared. My son started school this year and I have been told the years biggest fundraiser for the P&C is a big box of jumbo Freddo Frogs that is sent home with each student to sell. This really unsettles me and needless to say that box will not be coming into our home.

  • Carla

    Signed, sealed and delivered! This is a fantastic update as I happen to be presenting for health ed staff at a school next week and many colleagues are often working within their children’s schools doing wellness and education presentations. Thanks guys!

  • Brooke

    Signed & forwarded to contacts within the school system. Great initiative and a long overdue reform.

  • JoJo

    This is awesome! Thank you – this really speaks to me and my concerns about the crap served up in school canteens. Now I feel like I have a voice :)

  • Ginny W

    Hi everyone I like to voice about food in school canteen. I work in a secondary highschool canteen in WA with over 1000 students. Our school does follow the traffic light system religiously. We hand make many things, etc spagetti bolognaise sauce, muffins using fruit and chocolate muffins made with kidney beans etc. We provide salads, salad wraps etc. I can say we have 20% of students are over weight. We also limit the times they can purchase certain more sugar contented items. eg the 2 icecreams we are aloud to sell and small rice sticks. However even though I can say the guidelines in WA is stricter that other states. We have a food guidelines book that we must follow. So we are limited but I feel are these company’s paying to have these food items listed in the book? Limiting the % of sugar per item in manufactured foods is a start. I think at the moment it is 10% sugar that needs to be drop immediately to at least 5%. Not wait for 2-5 year later. Sugar in bread Why?? Manufacturing companies need a wake up call!! Bit like did Macca’s paid to have the heart tick of approval on some food a few years ago? Yes I agree there are many things that can be taken out of the menu selection. Eg orange juice flavoured milk (we don’t have the coffees) are high in sugar. However when we look at the list there isn’t much really to choose each year more and more is taken off the list. We run our canteen at a loss each year and have for many years, we provide a service for parents. We are funded by the school but when you look at school cafe that are run outside there are many food choses that shouldn’t be sold in school canteens. I know why they do it, to make a profit.
    However we can’t say or stop a teenager coming to our service window ordering 2-3 things to find them going to another window to buy more food. This is more the parents giving them too much money and too lazy to do a homemade lunch or find different alternatives to eat. We really need to look at what they are bringing from home is alarming, just going around to the rubbish bins and seeing the empty packets of chips, cakes, packet bars is the answer. Also when they leave school I see many students heading to Macca’s & other takeaway food outlets because we don’t serve what they want. We can only do what we can and take it to the top and educate parents to stop bad food choices.
    It will take time and effort and perseverance. But we can get there.

  • Kate

    Signed, promoted and shared. Great job IQS! Love this. As a mum with young kids, (& health coach) this is a constant battle… ‘on the ground’, trying to inform and build awareness is… tough to say the least. This sounds so positive and WILL make a difference. Thank you.

  • Emilia

    My daughter started school this year and I was so disappointed with the schools “healthy canteen”. I love the school and everything else about it. The staff are committed to providing the very best education experience to all its pupils and are clearly passionate about what they do. However, the canteen menu is alarming.
    Surely this is an easy situation to fix and one that should be included in federal policy. Early childhood centres are the same from my experience. I have so much respect for the teachers in these centres and the complex task of accommodating for different children’s needs regarding allergies. However, it is easy to provide healthy food choices using fresh produce that are free from allergens (gluten, nuts, dairy etc).

    I think providing a set menu that can be rotated through the term would be a huge help as the centre providers are often unaware of how to adhere to the Australian Dietary Guidelines. Thank you for getting the message out there.

  • Jodie Slater

    Brilliant initiative. I would love to see a web broadcast of Kieron’s lecture. As a new canteen operator in a primary school I have already moved our kitchen to a majority of “made by us’ healthy nourishing meals and let go of many snacks high in sugar, colours and preservatives, so far so good with a great response from parents. Trick is to change the meals around to keep the kids interest up. Our sister high school’s canteen operator also has the secondary students eating fresh meals without additives and they
    love her choices!

  • Bee

    I am a secondary school teacher in Vic and have constantly said how unhealthy the canteen is. The food does not provide the sustained energy the students need and I am constantly holding back my comments as I see them devouring sugary snacks. A proposal was put forward last year by a staff member and it was acknowledged but no follow through happened. It’s not good enough and we have a big influence on these young people’s lives.

    I am generally organised with my food each day but on the odd occasion even I have found myself hungry and without a snack. Other than a piece of fruit, there is not one thing I can eat. In addition, I never see teachers buying food from the canteen as they all acknowledge how terrible it is, yet we are happy for our kids to eat the rubbish food? Come on!

    We’ll take any help we can get IQS!

  • Joe Parry

    Gooday, I am a Primary School paid Canteen Manager of 4 years (+5 yrs volunteer), I make fresh bread rolls usually on a daily basis, cook fresh muffins, bake fresh chicken, the “healthy” NSW Govt of fresh tastes excludes butter (a natural product), cream (added calcium to a muffin). My mother lived to be 95, butter and cream played a big part + excluding colours and preservatives, excluding butter and cream is a disgrace, only butter butters, these are miniscule amounts I might add in serves, incidentally sugar has to be used in bread making to facilitate yeast to rise, sugar is also a natural product, that’s my opinion with evidence from a 95 yo., cheers joe

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