Punjab sets an example by banning junk food in schools

By not allowing children to bring junk food from home, the state education department's message—that junk food is unhealthy—is made clear to families

By Amit Khurana
Published: Friday 29 August 2014

By not allowing children to bring junk food from home, the state education department's message—that junk food is unhealthy—is made clear to families

Amit KhuranaJunk food will not be sold in schools of Punjab. This is something I am happy to write about. With a recent ban on junk food in schools and nearby areas, Punjab has taken a commendable lead in limiting junk food availability to school children. The state's education department recently issued directions regarding restrictions on junk food within schools and areas surrounding it, starting August this year.

The directions (pdf)
are aimed at ensuring good health of students. No shop or vendor selling junk food will be allowed inside the premises or surroundings of the schools. The school canteens and shops in close vicinity will be inspected on regular basis by the respective district health officer. The schools will have to create awareness about nutrition and healthy food habits through programmes and, rightly so, the students will be asked to bring nutritious food from home. Their lunch box can no longer contain junk food. 

With the growing disease burden of obesity, hypertension and diabetes, particularly among Indian children, the state government’s initiative is a first step in the right direction. Since children are a vulnerable group, public health benefits would be most pronounced if junk food consumption is limited at their level.  Healthy dietary habits developed at this level go a long way in maintaining individual health and the health of the society. Moreover, schools are meant to shape the right behaviours, and not promote or sell junk food.
Are the state's directions addressing the issue adequately? Yes, to a good extent. Let us see how. Besides curbing junk food availability within schools, the directions apply to areas around schools. The importance of limiting junk food in areas near schools is well known. The state health department has been involved in monitoring, which is essential for long-term success of such an initiative in our country.  Most importantly, by not allowing children to bring junk food from home, the message —that junk food is unhealthy—is made clear to families.

It does not stop here and attempts to enable the entire family choose a long-term, healthier solution by creating awareness about nutritious diets. It is also interesting to see how a policy initiative by those who are responsible—the education department of Punjab, in this instance—makes the regulatory process smooth and swift. On the contrary, in case of Delhi, a public interest petition seeking ban on junk food in schools is ongoing since 2010. 

The Punjab education department directives clearly show the intent of the policymakers, but specifying junk food items to be banned and up to what distance around schools would have helped further. It is believed that necessary details would soon be provided. These specifications could be also useful to other states that wish to limit consumption of such energy-dense, empty calorie foods. The directions are meant for government schools. Banning junk food in private schools would also address the issue one step further.

The issue of children consuming junk food has been close to our hearts. CSE has been involved in developing guidelines to limit the exposure and availability of junk food to school children. We have written to concerned ministries at the Centre and the states over the last several weeks and have urged a ban on junk food in schools and nearby areas up to 500 yards. Based on select criteria, ban on commonly available junk food items is recommended to begin with. It includes chips and similar packaged foods; sugar sweetened, carbonated and non-carbonated beverages; instant noodles; potato fries and burgers; and confectionary items such as chocolates. We have also suggested a school canteen policy wherein foods categorised as green (healthy) would constitute over 80 per cent of the choices available. Healthier food options are mentioned for benefit of school authorities.

In order to control exposure to junk foods beyond schools, we have suggested restrictions on advertisement and promotion of junk food targeted at children, including celebrity endorsement.  Improved consumer information system for people to know how much fat, salt and sugar they are eating is also recommended. (See Junk Food Targeted at Children at www.cseindia.org)

We welcome the decision of the Punjab government which has come in the backdrop of some recent statements on regulating junk food in schools by the current Union health minister before he assumed office and later by the Ministry of Women and Child Development. The statements made are yet to be followed up with some suitable action. We urge and hope that the government at the Centre and other states follow the example set by Punjab and regulate junk food consumption in the interest of the health of our children.
I am sure it helps to know that junk food is not allowed in schools of several countries across the world!

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