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Junk food in schools off the menu

assorted fast food,junk food. 123rf.comSoon, junk food will no longer be sold in schools.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has moved to prohibit the sale of junk food in school canteens against the backdrop of a growing crisis of childhood obesity in the country. By 2030, India is expected to be home to 27 million obese children compared to eleven million at present. By that year, India will surpass the United States as the country home to the second highest number of obese children in the world. 

The FSSAI’s decision is a wise move, given the proliferation of unhealthy foods throughout the country – even in schools. “Recently, we had received a series of complaints, and inspections revealed that many schools were providing foods and drinks high on fat, salt and sugar content,” commented Ranjana Prasad of the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights. 

The proposal was called for by the FSSAI, not only banning the sale of junk food in schools but also prohibiting their advertisement within a close radius of the school. “We have proposed to put a curb on advertisements and promotion of food that is not healthy in school premises and fifty metres surroundings,” said FSSAI chief executive officer Pawan Kumar Agarwal. “About three years ago, the High Court had asked us to come out with regulation on healthy diets for school children. We have been struggling to put that regulation together. Because if you have to make a law, it has to be implemented.”

Diabetes and oral health risks.
Increased availability of sugary drinks and fast food are leading to rising rates of obesity.

The FSSAI developed draft regulations, which would mandate that “foods which are referred to as foods high in fat, salt and sugar…cannot be sold to school children in school canteens or mess premises or hostel kitchens or within fifty meters of the school campus.” In addition, the FSSAI would – through the regulation – “encourage school authorities to promote consumption of a safe and balanced diet in the school as per the guidelines issued by the National Institute of Nutrition.” 

Agarwal referenced a Delhi High Court ruling, imposed in 2015, which said that the availability and consumption of junk food in schools ought to be restricted. The ruling was welcomed at the time by Centre for Science and Environment director-general Sunita Narain, who said “we welcome the Delhi High Court order in the junk food case, in which it has directed strict implementation of the guidelines for making available wholesome, nutritious, safe and hygienic food to school children in India. We would have liked a complete ban on the sale of junk food in schools, but what the Court has ordered is also very significant: restriction is an important step in recognition of the fact that this kind of food is bad for children, and must not be allowed in schools.” The ruling placed the onus on the FSSAI to devise guidelines, which Narain also touted. 

“The guidelines are scientific, comprehensive and well establish the harmful effects of junk foods,” she said. “The essence throughout the document is to not allow the availability of such foods in schools. If well implemented, maintaining the spirit of it, the guidelines will help avoid the looming health crisis in this country. The court has emphasised on time-bound enforcement across the country and has put immense faith in [the] FSSAI. It could prove to be a milestone development towards addressing the growing burden of obesity, diabetes and heart disease—among other noncommunicable diseases—in the Indian context.”

Such guidelines, however, have allegedly been ignored – prompting the new regulations. Foodstuffs prohibited include “deep-fried foods, for example French fries, fried chips, samosa, chole bhature, gulab jamun, sugar sweetened carbonated or noncarbonated beverages, ready-to-eat foods, noodles, pizzas, burgers, confectionary items, sugar and sugar-based products.” This drives a crisis where many Indian youths consume junk food on a regular basis – including 93 percent who consume packaged food at least once a week. This is especially concerning given that packaged food sold in India ranks among the unhealthiest of its kind sold in the world owing to high quantities therein of calories, saturated fat, total sugars, and sodium. 

McDonald's in Delhi. Copyright: paulprescott72 / 123RF Stock Photo
A McDonald’s in Delhi.

“Ours is a fast-evolving, consumer-based and middle-class to upper middle-class society,” commented nephrologist Dr Sanjeev Bagai, cited by News18. “Indians have a very high level of obesity, hypertension and diabetes. 

“The most vulnerable are children and India has 35 percent of its population under the age of eighteen years. For preventive healthcare, we must enforce correct eating habits. No advertising or endorsements of junk or processed food should be allowed in schools or colleges or any public domain. None in sports arenas too. Awareness must be created that junk foods cause short-term and long-term harm in all age groups.” 

As preeminent bariatric surgeon Dr Pradeep Chowbey, chairman of the Max Institute of Minimal Access, Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery in Saket, told Health Issues India last year, “in the last couple of years. we have seen a very significant and alarming rise in such cases of obesity. We are quite worried that we might get even more in the coming future. I think that there is a significant and alarming rise in childhood obesity in the country. After two decades, we have observed more and more patients coming with more cases of obesity to seek advice and operations and other types of management.” To counteract this, bold policy moves such as banning junk food in schools is needed to avert cases of obesity and resultant health complications. 

Heart disease is India’s leading cause of death. By 2025, the country could be home to 134 million diabetics. Hypertension affects around 224 million Indians. This is to say nothing of the other noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) obesity is a risk factor for, ranging from multiple types of cancer to strokes. Taking steps to prevent obesity early, such as by prohibiting the availability of junk food in environments where children are exposed, are far from the panacea to end India’s obesity woes but have much potential as a step towards decreasing rates of NCDs.

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