An article in this weekend’s Globe and Mail about the skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity is the latest in a series of media features about this important issue.This recent article examined the practice of some jurisdictions, including the U.K., to include a measure of a child ’s Body Mass Index (BMI) on the report card. Adding a physical attribute onto a report designed to communicate academic progress has triggered a debate about the extent to which schools have a responsibility for a child’s physical and mental well-being.
In Ontario, schools don’t presently assess and report on a student’s BMI, but they do facilitate and host dental screenings, inoculations, and in some instances eye exams. Physical and health education classes and co-curricular sports have also long been an entrenched and well-resourced feature of both elementary and secondary schools.
The Ministry of Education’s 2010 “School Food and Beverage Policy” was not a significant departure from this history of support for student health initiatives. As a Policy/Program Memorandum issued under the authority of S.8(1)(29.3) of the Education Act, it carries the same weight and authority as statutory regulation, and therefore unlike after-school sports, is a mandated feature of how schools operate.
The focus of this policy is to restrict the percentage of food sold on school premises which is high in fat, sugar and sodium, and as regulated activities go, provides for reasonable flexibility within each school.Where the Globe article quoted some as suggesting that the policy “oversteps school bounds”, one might argue that a complete lack of restriction on what can be sold to students also reflects a policy position, albeit one which has not been formally codified or publicly debated.
The Globe asked “who should be responsible for ensuring kids lead a healthy lifestyle: teachers or parents”. The answer, legally and morally, must be “both”. While parents clearly have ultimate responsibility for their children, most students eat approximately half of their daily meals and snacks while at school, and so neither parents nor boards are solely responsible or exempt.
In fact, schools are obligated to take an active role in this issue. The Education Act states that “Every board shall (a) promote student achievement and well-being” (S.169.1(1)), reflecting an expectation that boards will address these two policy priorities as interdependent of one another. In addition to this positive statutory obligation to be proactive, Boards have been and will continue to be held liable for students’ safety while they are at school, and must be mindful of the ever-evolving ways in which the standard of care is defined.
Those students who insist on a salty, fatty lunch or a sugary desert can still elect to eat at any of the fast food outlets which conveniently locate themselves near high schools wherever possible.Certainly since the menu choices at schools have been limited by the introduction of the “School Food and Beverage Policy”, and other options are usually readily available, cafeteria sales have been down across the province. However, most people would agree that fundraising should take a backseat to student health.
In the ongoing debate about how to address childhood obesity and student well-being generally, it is worth noting that this policy is only one of many responses, and it doesn’t mandate what students must buy, only limits what schools can sell.
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