Education over regulation for healthy eating

Euractiv, an independent pan-European media network specialised in EU policies, has produced a special report on the effectiveness of taxation for reducing sugar consumption. Part of the report quotes the parental perspective by Parents International. We were asked about our position on childhood obesity and how it could be fought. They were interested if it is enough to start from food in schools. They especially asked if we liked the decision of the European Soft Drink industiry to stop selling ‘sugary drinks’ in schools. They were also inquiring about necessary steps at the political level when it comes to creating a healthier environment in schools. You can read the full contribution by our Director – well quoted by the authors – based on our strong position about free decision by parents and the necessary parenting support for good decisions below.

Obesity and its consequences have been major issues in Europe and all over the world, and a major concern for parents. While poverty and starvation also increases in first and second world countries and we are very far from solving this problem in the third world, childhood obesity is causing more and more short-term and long-term health problems worldwide. This must be tackled carefully and in a holistic way. Sugar content reduction in general is a move by producers that parents welcome, if it doesn’t mean worse taste and customer experience. However, it is very important to not only focus on food and drinks on their own, but other factors such as the importance of enough exercise, or the fact that proper and regular family meals without screen involved help reduce obesity without any other measures necessary, only by psychological factors such as more consciousness on food and drink intake.

It is also important to consider that obesity and the unfortunate increase of child and family poverty go hand-in-hand, unhealthy food is cheap.

Parents and parents’ organisations has long demanded that this issue is tackled in a totally different way, by collaboration and support rather than regulation. It is clear from the example of a number of countries (eg. UK, Hungary, Malta) that regulations for school meals and food&drink avaliable on school premises do far more harm than good. I can give you the example of my home country, Hungary, where over 60 years of efforts to make lunch the main meal rather than eating something heavy and substantial in the evening went down the drain as children do not eat the ‘reform food’ forced on them, so they are starved and eat the main meal in the evening at home, while during the day they mostly survive on sandwich, chips and chocolate, that can be eaten by the desk. As school is always much less impacting for children than parents and peers (research evidence is ample on this), the approach you mention ‘starting from school’ is a mistake. It should start first of all much earlier than at school age, and should be based on targeted measures towards families. If families do not change their eating habits and do not do it from early childhood, measures are deemed to fail.

At the same time we also believe that families should be the primary target, as it may also a very much unwelcome outcome of measures at school that children do not eat the food their parents provide. In very rare individual instances that has also been the outcome of school meal reforms.

By secondary school young people have set habits that are difficult to change, so the measure you mention only results in students either bringing in their usual drinks in the morning or going out to the nearby shops in breaks – even causing an unnecessary danger sometimes. We believe that offer in the canteen or school cafeteria must be a co-decision of the school leader, parents and the students themselves, a local one.

I fully agree that more can be done on political level. First of all the central role and sole responsibility of parents in educating their children as it is set by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child should be acknowledged, and professional support should be based on this. This would need political commitment to the training of professionals meeting and working with families (paedietricians, social workers, professional educators, etc.), and supporting parenting should also be included in their job description and working hours. Health and well-being should be integral and highlighted part of this training and task. At the same time Europe should switch from focusing on institutional provisions to a more holistic approach to education, starting with implementing the UN approach to early childhood – when eating habits are set – from early institutionalisation in the framework of ECEC to focusing on empowering families as part of Early Childhood Development. Later on, the key to success is the tandem of parenting support and school autonomy, so that local communities can make decisions for themselves – parents, children and school together, as mentioned before.

It would be also essential for Europe to take the necessary family support and general measures to decrease child poverty by elevating the families from poverty (and not by meaures directed at children only) as the EU has committed itself to when setting the EU2020 goals. In reality in the past few years the differences between the situation of rich and poor has grown and child poverty is increasing in many EU countries.

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