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Ban sugar-sweetened drinks from school areas; integrate school-feeding strategy to fight deadly diseases

Sub-Regional Caribbean Coordinator of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Dr. Lystra Fletcher-Paul

Caribbean governments are being urged to ban sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) from school environments and integrate the health, education and agriculture ministries, in an effort to reduce stem the scourge of  non-communicable diseases such as diabetes.

President of the Healthy Caribbean Coalition, Sir Trevor Hassell issued the call at the Caribbean Week of Agriculture (CWA) 2018 being held in Barbados. He said his call was issued against the background of Caribbean Community (Caricom) leaders last year expressing concern that obesity represents the greatest threat to the health of the region’s future generations.

“I encourage you to support  measures to reduce childhood obesity in the region including tax on SSBs; creation of healthier school environments through banning of marketing, promotion and sale of SSBs and unhealthy junk foods in schools; improvement of school feeding programmes, and healthy food choices in school canteens,” he said.

Sub-Regional Caribbean Coordinator of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Dr. Lystra Fletcher-Paul, who  said school-feeding programmes in 14 of the 15 Caricom member states were being assessed, cited the need for an integrated approach to school-feeding by  the Ministries of Education, Health and Agriculture.

“The Ministry of Agriculture has an important role to play because they can link the school-feeding programme with local farmers who can use the food to substitute for some of these unhealthy alternatives,” she told reporters. Among the items that she said could be used to help produce healthy foods for schools could be lettuce, tomatoes, and fruit justices.

FAO figures show that one in every three children in the Caribbean is  either obese or overweight due to eating habits and lifestyle.

President of the Caribbean Healthy Coalition, Sir Trevor Hassell

She also said the three ministries also need to collaborate in creating regulations and legislation on school-feeding including “banning sugary drinks in the school-feeding programmes” and ensuring that a certain percentage of the meals are produced locally and putting in place a better tax regime.

The FAO official said the Caribbean has decided to adopt the Brazilian school-feeding model that includes the inter-ministerial approach, providing a livelihood for small farmers who produce for school-feeding programmes, changing the menu for healthy alternatives, creating social partnerships through the parent teachers associations, and involving the private sector in infrastructural development of school-feeding facilities

Fletcher-Paul hoped that government and opposition parties could work together in “parliamentary fronts” to discuss, among other areas of mutual interest, school feeding programmes. “Even if there is a change in government, you can see both sides of the political divide taking this ball and running with it so we are saying let the parliamentarians sit together and decide on legislation related to school-feeding,” she said.

The banning of sugar-sweetened beverages, she acknowledged, might not be accepted by all but sometimes decisions have to be made based on what is “good for our people”. Fletcher-Paul said in instances where the sugar tax is regarded as unpalatable to governments, the alternative is to educate and empower consumers about what are healthy foods. “If you do that, it will influence even the people who are selling these foods because of your consumers are not buying it, they are not going to import it into the country,” the FAO official added.

Asked how she expected to convince businesses that are driven by profits to cease selling sugar-sweetened beverages, she said the private sector players need to be told that they and their children’s future are at risk of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases which could see them spending more on health care rather than growing and selling local produce. “To me, to appeal to the private sector, you have to appeal to them as parents of children who could be affected by these chronic non-communicable diseases and obesity if you don’t feed properly and from that you get the buy-in because it’s your social responsibility,” she said.

The Caribbean Healthy Coalition says diets high in energy-dense, highly-processed foods and refined starches and/or sugary beverages contribute to overweight and obesity with increased risk of disease or death from cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and several types of cancer.