FSSAI has prepared a set of guidelines for schoolchildren

Nutritionist Meenakshi Bajaj's five-year-old turns her nose up at a packet of crisps, “But Mama, this is junk,” she says, with a touch of drama. “No, she didn't get that from me,” Dr. Bajaj says. “She learnt it from school, and at this age, kids set great store by what their teachers say, not parents.”

That is one reason why parents who want the best for their children will be grateful for the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI)'s latest move. The Authority has drawn up a series of draft guidelines to be followed by all Indian schools to ensure that children get safe, hygienic, healthy and balanced food.

In its submission in a public interest litigation filed in the Delhi High Court, the FSSAI has prepared a comprehensive set of guidelines, covering all aspects of a healthy diet, targeting food groups, nutrition aspects, preparation, handling, storage, and monitoring.

The PIL was filed by Rahul Verma of Uday Foundation, a Delhi-based NGO, and it prayed for a ban on selling junk food and carbonated drinks in schools and within an 500 m radius.

 

The FSSAI has acknowledged that the lack of standards for schools has resulted in under nutrition combined with several incidents of food poisoning and contamination in the school feeding programme. Additionally, obesity is a problem particularly in the towns, due to the changing dietary practices of children.

In order to understand the situation in schools, the FSSAI charged a market research company with assessing the existing condition of foods being served in schools. Based on the study outcome, the guidelines have been framed, and promise to be friendly for children and schools.

The idea is that schools need to encourage consumption of fruits and vegetables, including green leafy ones, locally available and seasonal. Wherever children bring their own meals, it is imperative to teach children about eating healthy, and to keep a watch on what they bring in their lunch boxes.

What is more, the FSSAI, which functions under the health ministry, is recommending the use of social networks like Facebook and Twitter to take the message of risks associated with eating unhealthy food across the nation.

Vijay Vishwanathan, of MV Hospital for Diabetes, Royapuram, says there are three aspects to inculcating the healthy food habit: Parents should pack healthy food, schools should provide only healthy food and junk food must not be available near the school. “Only then, can we really hope for a positive result. But it has happened, there is a model school in Chandigarh, under the CBSE’s health care manual, all three aspects are in practice, and we are seeing a change,” he adds. The hospital conducted a survey in Chennai schools between 2009 and 2011, and found that 23 per cent were overweight and 13 per cent obese.

Dr. Bajaj reinforces the point about beginning in schools. “It is only when healthy food habits are reinforced from an early stage, and repeatedly do they have an effect. In fact, my recommendation is to have a nutritionist in every school. This is way more sensible than going to a nutritionist when you are older and have diabetes and hypertension, altering eating habits is always tougher then.”

In her opinion, schools have a great impact on children, and some schools have already incorporated the health concept with reference to children’s lunches and snacks.

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