In Australia, one in four children and teenagers are overweight or obese. Globally, more than 124 million children and adolescents (6% of girls and 8% of boys) are obese. Statistics like these have led to a greater focus from governments, schools and communities more broadly to promote regular physical activity and healthier diets among young people.
The latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statics (ABS) released in 2022 from the National Health Survey shows just one in 20 (4.3%) children and adolescents aged 2-17 years meet the Australian Dietary Guideline (ADG) recommendations for daily fruit and vegetable intake.
The ADG recommends a minimum number of 1-2 serves of fruit and 4-5 vegetables each day for children, depending on their age and sex, to ensure good nutrition to support growth and development.
Of concern was in the continued decline in fruit and vegetable intake in school aged children. In 2022, fewer children aged 2–17 years met the fruit and vegetable recommendations compared to 2017–18.
One expert who has been working to help schools and communities improve the health and wellbeing of young people is Dr Catharine Fleming, a Lecturer in Public Health in the Western Sydney University’s School of Science and Health.
Most recently as an Early Career Researcher in the Translation Health Research Institute, Dr Fleming is working collaboratively across Western Sydney University with expert researchers in infant feeding, early childhood development and disordered eating focused clinical psychology to build a body of work focusing on protecting children against lifelong chronic disease through investigating different aspects of early infant and young child feeding in the first 2000 days of life.
She says early years intervention is crucial as dietary behaviours established early in life will continue into adulthood, but intervention for school age children is just as critical to maintain optimal dietary behaviours for growth throughout adolescence.
“Despite this, data from the ABS illustrates that optimal fruit and vegetable consumption drops to only 1.5% in 4–8-year-olds and 2.9% in adolescents 14–17 years compared to younger children aged 2–3 years where 20.1% met recommendations,” Fleming told The Educator.
“With children consuming 30% of their daily energy at school and the continued decline in fruit and vegetable intake in school age children, it is clear what an important issue nutrition is for the health and welling of children and needs to be a priority at school.”
Start the conversation with students
Dr Fleming highlighted the importance of ensuring sustainable nutritional change for children and adolescents through co-designed and development of interventions by young people for young people.
“In a recent study we conducted participatory workshops with 40 young people aged 10-18 years from across Australia, one of their biggest concerns young people discussed was the limited provision of healthy food and nutrition education at school and how this influenced what they ate,” she said.
“Young people told us they were provided inconsistent nutrition information at school – especially around nutrients required for growth such as iron – and they sourced most nutrition information from peers or social media.”
Dr Fleming noted that young people also frequently discussed not eating at school as they did lot like the food provided in the canteen which had limited healthy options.
“Talking with young people provides an opportunity for young people to have a voice around what are their direct concerns for food and nutrition at school,” she said.
“Through asking and partnering with school children we can enable young people to have agency around improving both nutrition education in the classroom and school canteen options. By partnering with young people, and allowing a greater sense of agency, sustained behaviour change can occur.”
How to frame positive lunchbox discussions
Dr Fleming said while lunchbox shaming has unfortunately surfaced as a reported event on social media, the actual extent of this is unknown.
“No public health nutrition education program in schools supports this approach when educating school children about food and nutrition.”
Below, Dr Fleming shares 5 tips of how to frame positive lunchbox discussions and nutrition within the school environment.
1. No labelling of food as ‘good and bad’. Instead of shaming foods as ‘bad’ which can bring stigma and isolation around lunchtime routines. Rather discuss with children the benefits for their growing bodies or for adolescents as they transition into adulthood the need for nutrients provided in whole foods that are not found in processed foods e.g. iron
2. Support children to explore and try new foods. Avoid focusing on what is ‘bad’ food support children to explore and learn about vegetables through programs such as the VegKIT program by expanding a child’s knowledge by providing opportunities to taste and explore new vegetables. This approach has been shown to increase their vegetable consumption (Laureati et al 2014).
3. Provide supportive and inclusive environments for children with food allergies and sensory food considerations. All children who have medical restive food requirements need to be supported by the school with a food and nutrition policy that supports their inclusion during events when food is served such as fundraisers.
4. Provide enabling environments where nutrition is not just a focus of the lunch box. Nutrition needs to have a whole of school approach that is discussed in the classroom along with opportunities to learn about food systems, and sustainable food futures. Where and how do we get the food, we eat? An important part of this is school vegetable gardens and locally sourced foods for children to enjoy.
5. School canteens need to be health promoting not just food providing. A critical component of the NSW Healthy School Canteen policy is promotion not only provision of healthy foods. School canteens have the opportunity to be active partners in promoting fresh fruit and vegetable options for children through price and engaging promotion of healthy foods.
1. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Dietary Behaviour: Key statistics and data about child and adult consumption of fruit and vegetables, 2022; Available from: https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/health/health-conditions-and-risks/dietary-behaviour/latest-release
2. Fleming CAK, Hannah S, Zorbas C, Wrottesley SV, Estecha Querol S, Sharma D, Third A (2024) #lets_make_a_change: a child rights approach to child and adolescent nutrition measurement. World Public Health Nutrition Congress. London June 2024
3. Laureati, M., Bergamaschi, V., & Pagliarini, E. (2014). School-based intervention with children. Peer-modeling, reward and repeated exposure reduce food neophobia and increase liking of fruits and vegetables. Appetite, 83, 26-32.