Vending machines which dispense junk foods and sugary drinks in schools should be banned, according to an Oireachtas education committee report.
It also recommends that unhealthy food should be phased out of school canteens and shops to help counter childhood obesity.
The recommendations are contained in a new report from the Joint Committee on Education.
Committee chairwoman Fiona O’Loughlin TD said the group was gravely concerned about prevalence of childhood obesity and the potential for a future health epidemic.
She said the committee’s focus had been on measures that could be taken and implemented at school level, such as including greater access to physical education and the banning of unhealthy snacks from schools.
The committee, which held a number of hearings into the issue of obesity last year, heard evidence that many schools were failing to ensure healthy choices were available for students at second level.
Research by the Irish Heart Foundation has found that many secondary schools offer items such as sausage rolls, mini-pizzas, Danish pastries and cookies every day.
Its survey also indicated that more than a quarter of schools had tuck shops selling sweets and soft drinks, and half had vending machines. Many did not have access to free drinking water.
Ms O’Loughlin said: “Childhood obesity is a problem across the developed world and it is a complex problem, in that it is driven by biological, behavioural, and contextual factors.
"In Ireland, if we are to deal with a problem which costs the State approximately €1 billion annually in treating individuals who are overweight or obese, it is essential that ongoing and sustainable school programmes, teacher training, and training for communities and parents are in place to reverse obesity trends."
Some of the committee’s other recommendations include:
- Fresh drinking water to be made freely available to all school-going children;
- Explore the possibility of using revenue generated from the sugar tax for initiatives which promote a healthy weight and an active lifestyle for all;
- Break times should be targeted to promote increased activity in children;
- Schools without access to physical education facilities should be prioritised under the school-building programme to facilitate the rollout of physical education as an examinable subject to all post-primary students;
- Lands and green spaces should be protected for schools' use for sports and exercise, and the construction of playgrounds, gyms and other exercise facilities;
Ms O’Loughlin said she hoped the report’s findings would inform Minister for Education Richard Bruton’s policy development in this area.