All healthy habits can begin in the schoolyard
By Wayne Gao 高志文
On Oct. 6, high-school civics teacher Huang I-chung (黃益中) on Facebook slammed a proposed amendment to the School Health Act (學校衛生法) that would extend the ban on the sale of sugary drinks on school campuses to include senior high schools.
Huang said that although sugary drinks have been banned from sale in elementary and junior high schools for many years, there are no fewer overweight children than before, which proves that the ban has been ineffective.
Based on his logic, if people found Taiwanese to be not cultured enough, it could be inferred that civic education has been a failure. In that case, should we drop civics from the curriculum and sack all civics teachers? Surely the correct solution would be to provide more and better civic education, not less.
More than 10 years ago, the John Tung Foundation (董氏基金), the Nutrition Society of Taiwan (營養學會) and other civic groups waged a successful campaign to get sugary drinks off our elementary and junior high school campuses. This example of schoolyard health promotion is quite well known around the world and several nations have followed Taiwan’s example.
The ban might be one reason that only between 20 percent and 30 percent of Taiwanese teenagers are overweight —it might be even more otherwise.
It is true that schools cannot control what their students do off campus and that just altering the campus environment cannot transform students’ drinking and eating habits. Nonetheless, schoolyards are one of the main places for fostering students’ health literacy and encouraging good lifestyle choices from an early age.
Plenty of other nutritionally poor foods and drinks are available off campus, but does that mean there is no need to make sure that school lunches consist of good quality food?
When students step outside their school gates, they see people smoking and see cigarettes for sale. Does that mean that there is no need to ban cigarettes in schools?
Even when people know about nutrition, if food and drinks that are high in fat, sugar and salt are widely available in their daily lives, sheer willpower might not be enough to avoid eating and drinking too much. Changing people’s food and drink environment is a way to help consumers make healthier choices.
Health promotion and tobacco prevention are tasks that require government action. The latest WHO Global Burden of Disease Study indicates that one in five deaths worldwide is caused in part by poor diet, including consuming too much sugar, salt and fat, and not enough fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
The high prevalence of chronic diseases among Taiwanese cannot be lightly attributed to the “aging tidal wave,”because an aging population does not necessarily mean that a lot of people will have chronic illnesses.
Taiwan does face a rising prevalence of chronic diseases, which are also affecting an increasing number of young people. This problem is becoming a major national economic and social crisis. As well as creating a huge financial burden on the National Health Insurance program and long-term care provision, it will also pose the greatest challenge to intergenerational equity, as it places an unbearable burden on the next generation of young people.
Encouraging people both in and outside of school to cut their consumption of sugary, salty and fatty foods and drinks is not a pie-in-the-sky policy, but one that helps people attain their basic human rights of food safety and personal health.
Wayne Gao is an assistant professor on Taipei Medical University’s master’s program in global health and development.
Translated by Julian Clegg