Vending machines are sources of revenue for schools

Children tempted by fizzy drinks, chocolate and crisps on a daily basis in schools

Sausage rolls, chips, mini-pizzas, Danish pastries and cookies. They are just some of the staples on the menus of most secondary school canteens today.

Almost half of schools have access to vending machines which sell chocolate, crisps, sweets and fizzy drinks. A similar proportion of post-primary schools do not have access to free drinking water.

"This is what confronts schoolchildren every day," says Chris Macey of the Irish Heart Foundation, which conducted research on food in schools in 2015.

“They learn about the food pyramid and the need to limit their intake of treat foods and drinks but, for many, once they leave the classroom, junk products are everywhere all day long. The temptation pupils face is constant.”

It’s little wonder, say many, that obesity levels among schoolchildren have soared from around 1 per cent of children in the mid-1970s to about 10 per cent of boys and girls today. About a third of schoolchildren overall are now overweight.

This week the Oireachtas education committee recommended that vending machines which dispense junk food should be banned from schools. In addition, it said unhealthy food should be phased out of school canteens and shops to help counter childhood obesity.

A key problem, however, is that many Irish schools earn significant sums through vending machines on their premises or in contracts for tuck shops or private catering companies.

Schools, in some cases, can earn thousands of euro in commission fees for allowing vending machines in their buildings.

“This is money we depend on to re-invest in the school to help plug funding gaps,” says one teacher, who declined to be named.

“It’s the same with the catering contracts. Healthy food is more expensive. You might see things improve for a while when an issue is made of it, but it’s soon back to chips and curries.”

Social barriers

There are also social and cultural barriers. For example, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver found his campaign to promote healthy eating in schools did not succeed in many cases because eating well was considered a preoccupation of the "very posh" and middle class.

While the proliferation of snack outlets is an issue at second level, most primary schools don’t have vending machines or canteens.

Concerns among young pupils tend to focus on what parents put in their children’s lunchboxes – such as supersized treats – and sedentary lifestyles.

Claire Heneghan, a primary school teacher at Scoil Róis, Galway, has spoken of how school uniform sizes among junior and senior infants are on the rise.

“The larger size is now becoming the more uniform size,” she says. “Obesity is a real problem.”

There are a variety of projects aimed at promoting more exercise and healthier lunches at primary level, though many are practised by schools on an ad hoc basis.

On an encouraging note, obesity levels among schoolchildren seem to be stabilising overall.

Data collected as part of a UCD childhood obesity surveillance initiative shows there has been a reduction in the prevalence of overweight and obese children in non-disadvantaged schools.

As for whether a ban on vending machines or junk food can be enforced by the Department of Education, many teachers don’t think so. This is because most schools are run by individual boards of management and owned by different patron groups.

For Dr Celine Murrin of UCD’s school of public health, the argument is not whether banning vending machines will solve the problem of obesity, but whether we want our schools to be supportive of health and wellbeing or not.

“Schools are places where children and young people should be enabled to achieve their full potential,” she says.

“It is essential to create school environments which promote and support health and wellbeing. Having ready access to food and drinks which are typically of poor nutritional value, without having a healthier alternative, is not part of a healthy school environment.”