Real food and junk at Greek school canteens

Dietitians complain and the research backs them up: Greek children are the fattest in Europe. Children spend much of the day at school, where canteens sell recommended food, but also potato chips, soda pop and chewing gum. Inspections over the past school year revealed that one in five school canteens does not meet official requirements because they sell prohibited products. Last September, Athanassios Skordas, the general secretary for consumer affairs under the Development Ministry, sent a circular to all prefectures, instructing them to intensify inspections of school canteens with respect to both hygiene and the items for sale. Existing legislation allows school canteens to sell rolls, toasted cheese sandwiches, bread and simple bread products, individually wrapped raisin bread, cheese and spinach pies, cheese, milk, all kinds of yogurt (without artificial sweeteners or colorings), fresh fruit washed and wrapped in cellophane, fruit juices made of 100 percent juice, small packets of dried fruit and nuts, tea, other beverages and coffee (the last only for the staff). The law does not specify many details, such as what type of bread may be sold (white, brown, whole grain, etc), what type of cheese may be used in sandwiches, or how the cheese pies should be made. Apart from that, the list is not realistic. No child is going to dash to the canteen the moment the bell rings to get individually wrapped raisin bread or a cup of herbal tea. The people who run the canteens claim that children who are used to snacking on chips, croissants and soda at home are not going to eat anything different at school, and that if they can’t get what they want from the school canteen, they will simply buy it from a local shop or bring it to school with them. Canteen managers justify filling their display cases with chocolate, ham pies and soda by saying that children don’t like the other foods. Laying the blame for the worsening problem of child obesity in Greece solely on canteens is not the answer, as doctor-dietitian Giorgos Pantopoulos told Kathimerini. «Our first concern should not be what we’re going to have in the canteens. If parents habitually feed their children fast food, they can’t expect the school or the parent-teacher association to solve their problem. Of course school canteens shouldn’t be selling junk food, but if children ate a proper breakfast before going to school, they wouldn’t be prepared to eat just anything at midday. «Likewise, if we took our children by the hand and taught them the basic rules of nutrition and made sure that they were sufficiently active, there would be no problem. Children themselves would refuse to go to the refrigerator to get a soda. Another way is to limit children’s pocket money. There are solutions, if we’re prepared to adopt them. Parents have to take matters into their own hands.» Yet a survey by the General Secretariat for Consumer Affairs shows that 47 percent of parents do not even know whether the canteen at their child’s school operates properly. As Pantopoulos notes, Greece needs to follow the example of other countries that have begun concerted efforts to change children’s eating habits. Some have even removed the benches from playgrounds to ensure that children are active during recess.