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School Lunches: New Nutrition Guidelines Could Mean Kids Will Eat Elsewhere

You can fill school cafeterias with healthy food, but you can't make students buy it.

That's the conundrum facing school boards and catering companies across Ontario as new nutrition guidelines take revenue-driving, crowd-pleasing items like french fries and cookies off the menu in favour of healthier options.

Though the change, which comes into effect on September 1, is intended to get kids to make better choices, there's concern that in many cases, students may simply choose to get their fatty, sugary and salty food-fix elsewhere -- an outcome that stands to take a big bite out of school cafeteria revenues.

"We're kind of on a new horizon," says Catherine Parsonage, senior manager of nutrition services for the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). "We really don't know what's going to happen, and whether or not cafeterias as they stand today are even profitable or viable anymore."

As Parsonage -- who manages about 50 cafeterias on behalf of the board -- points out, students in urban areas often have easy access to cheap, unhealthy food -- regardless of whether schools offer it.

"Every single [high] school pretty much has fast food targeted toward the student market right across the street," she says. "The saturated fat, high-sodium level greasy food is the cheapest food to buy and it's the most readily available, so it's a really hard thing to compete with. We're hoping our students will start to really evaluate their choices and make better ones, [but] it's a bit of a worry."

The concern is not unwarranted. In advance of the implementation of the new nutrition guidelines, which built on previous legislation aimed at giving junk food the boot, the board piloted the program in several high schools; on average, says Parsonage, cafeteria revenues dropped by between nine and 15 per cent.

"Those sales went somewhere, where they went we're not really sure, but they went somewhere," she says.

The new policy, which is similar to what's in place in other provinces, mandates that "the healthiest options" (defined as having high levels of essential nutrients) make up "at least 80 per cent all food choices," and prohibits the sale of any foods that are high in sodium, fat or sugar.

Parsonage says the decline in revenues may be even more significant for private catering companies, which run about two-thirds of the cafeterias in the TDSB.

"Our contractors have said that they're anticipating huge revenue losses -- some are anticipating as much as a 35 per cent [drop]," she says.

It would be a significant decline for an industry already facing pinched profit margins.

As Ross Munro, president of Chartwells, a division of Compass Group Canada that operates 900 school cafeterias across the country, explains, the added pressures associated with the rising food prices and shifting demographics mean that running school cafeterias is "a business that's challenging always, and getting more challenging for sure."

"The business case in a board today is, if you have seven schools, usually two or three are profitable, two or three are not profitable, and the ones in the middle are the ones that make the difference," he says, pointing out that rural schools, where kids don't have the option of nearby fast-food outlets, are generally much more profitable than urban ones.

(According to Parsonage, board-operated cafeterias have traditionally been a "break even" proposition.)

Munro says that although the implementation of similar nutrition policies in other provinces has already prompted the company to tweak its menus, and find ways to "make nutrition cool," he concedes that there's always "a learning curve" -- and generally an initial dip in revenues whenever more restrictive guidelines are introduced.

"The hope and plan is that you will do enough developing and educating that you will bring your business back to where you were," he says.

But he concedes that the shift in Ontario could in some cases force that company to reevaluate its business model.

"If what we believe may happen -- that sales drop 25 per cent -- it's going to mean that the lower [revenue] schools are going to be very challenging, so it is completely possible that on a business basis we would be going to clients and looking at those smaller schools [and] alternate approaches to the delivery," he says. "It is possible that some of the processes would just not be profitable."

One option, he says, would be to switch from the traditional cafeteria model to an online system, where the company would deliver lunch to students on a per-order basis.

"We do like to prepare on site and bake fresh, make soups on site and so on, but that's an alternative model," he says.

Parsonage, however, offers a different solution.

Though she is "very supportive of the direction the provincial government is going" in its bid to improve student nutrition, she says a government-subsidized program would make it easier for kids to choose healthy options.

"If we could offer healthy food to our teens for, lets say $2, not only would we have an educational impact, we would have a long-term health impact. A student will eat the food as long as they can afford to buy it," she says. "Because, when you were growing up, did you spend $5 on broccolli, or did you get the french fries? For me it was french fries and gravy."

Do you know what your kids are eating at school? OpenFile and Huffington Post Canada team up for an insightful and comprehensive examination of the issue of school lunches. Over the next week, we look at what school cafeterias are serving and what parents are (and should be) packing. We examine the idea of "lunchroom racism," report on the impact of corporate sponsorships on school lunches, and reveal how are school boards tackling these and other issues. Join the discussion here or on Twitter by using the #FoodFight hashtag.

Sugary Drinks Disappearing From Schools

The relationship between schools and major food manufacturers has never been entirely without conflict. But in recent years, growing concerns about childhood obesity has increasingly put soda and fast-food companies at odds with parents and schools, which have long relied on revenues from corporate contracts to meet funding gaps.

More often than not, tensions have centred on PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, whose vending machines have for decades lined the halls of public schools around the world, making them an obvious target of criticism about the effect of sugary drinks on children.

Here are five examples of how the world’s soda giants have changed the way they sell and market fizzy beverages in schools.

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