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Survey of canteens and food services in Victorian schools.

Abstract

Objective: To examine the characteristics of food services in Victorian government primary and secondary schools.

Design and methods: A cross-sectional postal survey of all high schools and a random sample of one quarter of primary school respondents in Victoria. A 'School Food Services and Canteen' questionnaire was administered by mail to the principal of each school.

Subjects: Respondents included principals, canteen managers and home economics teachers from 150 primary and 208 secondary schools representing response rates of 48% and 67%, respectively.

Main outcome measures: Responses to closed questions about school canteen operating procedures, staff satisfaction, food policies and desired additional services.

Data analyses: Frequency and cross-tabulation analyses and associated [chi square]-tests.

Results: Most schools provided food services at lunchtime and morning recess but one-third provided food before school. Over 40% outsourced their food services, one-third utilised volunteer parents, few involved students in canteen operations. Half of the secondary schools had vending machines; one in five had three or more. Secondary school respondents were more dissatisfied with the nutritional quality of the food service, and expressed more interest in additional services than primary respondents. Schools with food policies wanted more service assistance and used volunteer parents, student and paid canteen managers more than schools without policies.

Conclusion: Most schools want to improve the nutritional quality of their food services, especially via school food policies. There is a major opportunity for professional organisations to advocate for the supply of healthier school foods.

Key words: foods, nutrition, school canteens, survey, Victoria Australia

(Nutr Diet 2005;62:76-81)

Introduction

With the advent of mass primary education in the late nineteenth century, schools in many countries responded to children's needs through the provision of food services and canteens, which served cooked meals to children. In Australia, however, education systems have rarely provided comprehensive food services, preferring to supplement parentally provided foods (in the form of the 'lunch box').

However, times are changing. For example, more mothers are now employed in part- or full-time work outside the home than ever before and are less able than previous generations to volunteer their labour to school canteens. (1) Recent reports suggest that children's eating habits may be quite unhealthy: Magarey et al. have shown that the energy intakes of school children rose dramatically in the decade between 1985 and 1995 when the prevalence of children's obesity also accelerated. (2) Cleland et al. have shown that a majority of primary children believe many of the foods sold by school canteens are unhealthy and they suggest that the school canteen is a major impediment to healthy eating. (3) Overseas, French et al. have shown that many American school food services are strongly influenced by fast food companies. (4)

The state of Australian school food services is unclear. As will be seen, many school food services are 'outsourced', which means that commercial catering companies supply foods to the schools. Schools have varying degrees of influence over the quality of these foods. Many schools depend on sales of high-energy low-nutrient products to earn profits that subsidise school activities, such as sporting events. (5) However, some seem able to sell nourishing low--medium energy dense foods at a profit. (6) Some schools have attempted to improve the nutritional content of their food supply through the adoption of school food policies (e.g. Holy Trinity School Food Policy, http://www.holytrinity.act.edu.au/policies.html), although the extent of this is not clear. Because of the lack of knowledge about schools' food operations we decided to conduct an exploratory survey of Victorian primary and secondary schools to examine the following aspects of their service:

* Their management, for example their hours of opening, whether they are 'outsourced' and their use of volunteers

* The services offered by primary and secondary schools, including the provision of food and beverage vending machines

* Schools' satisfaction with the service offered by the school canteen

* The perceived needs of schools for additional assistance such as business and nutrition training for canteen staff, introductions to buyers' networks, adoption of healthy food award schemes and linking the curriculum with school food services

* The adoption of school food policies and the effects of their adoption on canteen management.

We expected there would be substantial differences in the responses of primary and secondary schools because of their different organisation, curricula and the numbers and ages of their students. We hypothesised that secondary schools would offer a broader range of services and perhaps encounter more problems. We also expected schools that had adopted food policies to have recognised the need for additional services.

Methods

Survey instrument

A two-page self-administered questionnaire, entitled 'School Food Services and Canteens', included questions relating to the aims of the study outlined above (Tables 2-4).

Survey administration

Ethics and administrative permission was received from the Victorian Department of Education and Training prior to the administration of the survey in November and December 2002. Surveys and letters were sent to principals in all government high schools in Victoria and in a simple random sample of one quarter of Victorian government primary schools (as listed by the Department of Education and Training). In some cases the respondents were the principals themselves, while other respondents included canteen managers and home economics teachers. The survey was mailed (with a covering letter about the study aims) to the potential respondents followed by a written reminder including a replacement questionnaire one month after the initial mail. (7)

Data analysis

After coding, the data were entered into SPSS version 11.5 files and analysed by frequency and two by two cross-tabulation ([chi square]) analyses. (8)

Results

A total of 150 primary schools and 208 secondary schools returned completed questionnaires, representing response rates of 48% and 67%, respectively. The sizes of these schools are shown in Table 1.

Schools operating canteens

Almost all secondary schools (96%) operated canteens though fewer primary schools did so (59%). Canteens opened every weekday in all secondary schools and in 98% of the primary schools that had them. Opening hours varied considerably: 94% of secondary schools but only 37% of primary schools canteen facilities opened for morning recess; 96% of secondary schools and 56% of primary schools opened at lunchtime; 52% of secondary schools but only 5% of primary schools opened before school; 8% of secondary schools and 1% of primary schools opened either for afternoon recess or after school (Table 2). A wider range of opening hours was offered by secondary schools. Just over half of the schools employed a paid canteen manager, over one-third were entirely outsourced, half used volunteer parents and approximately one in six used the services of student volunteers. Vending machines were present in 55% of secondary schools but in only one primary school. The main foods sold from these machines were soft drinks, chocolate, confectionery and high-energy snacks.

Satisfaction with school food services

Generally, more of the primary schools were satisfied with the current status quo than secondary schools. Overall, about two-thirds of respondents reported that they thought their school councils were satisfied with the nutritional content of canteen foods and similar proportion thought parents were also satisfied (Table 3). Almost one-third (31%) of secondary school respondents thought there was an issue with the nutritional content of vending machine products. Generally, respondents were split over whether the foods sold in the canteen reflected the nutrition knowledge taught in the classroom; more secondary respondents thought the foods did not reflect classroom teaching.

Additional services indicated by respondents

In order of preference, the most desired additional services were: ideas for supplier contacts, for profitable canteen operation and for incorporation of aspects of the canteen into the curriculum; canteen award systems; and assistance with food policy development. Generally, secondary schools were more interested in these additional services (Table 4).

The associations of school food policies with canteen operations and satisfaction

Most schools that had food policies expressed more satisfaction with the nutritional status of foods served in the canteen and they indicated that the nutritional quality of the canteen foods was consistent with the nutrition curriculum (Table 5). Fewer of them required assistance with the development of food policies.

Food policy and canteen services

Among primary schools there were no differences between those with or without food policies in terms of outsourcing, employment of paid managers or use of volunteers (Table 6). However, among secondary schools, those that had food policies tended to outsource less often, and used paid canteen managers, students and volunteer parents more often (Table 6). Unexpectedly, there was no relationship between the adoption of food policies and the presence of vending machines (Table 6) or in the numbers of vending machines between secondary schools with and without food policies (Mann-Whitney U = 1183.5, P = 0.307).

Discussion

These findings help to describe the challenges facing schools in Victoria, and probably in other Australian states, in feeding their students. As expected, the experiences of primary and secondary schools differed substantially in terms of their services, parental and council satisfaction, adoption of food policies, numbers of vending machines installed and demand for additional services. At face value, many primary schools appeared to be more satisfied with their operations. In comparison, more secondary schools seemed to be aware of problems and wanted assistance.

The opening hours of the school canteens reflect a traditional pattern--they serve lunch and morning recess foods. However, the finding that one-third open before school is consistent with reports of widespread food insecurity in the community. (9) The lack of after-school or afternoon recess openings may reflect the early closing times of most schools. This suggests that there is ad hoc sharing of responsibilities for feeding children between schools, caregivers and voluntary out of school care programs.

The reported management of the canteens suggests that there has been a shift away from the traditional reliance on volunteers. The effects of these arrangements on the nutritional quality of children's food consumption cannot be gauged from the present study, although other work suggests that the general quality of canteen foods offered by many schools is inconsistent with the dietary guidelines for children and adolescents, relying too much on high-energy foods like cakes, hot chips, pies, pastries and soft drinks. (2,3,10) Further work is required to examine the nutritional quality of students' food intake.

Despite these problems, considerable satisfaction was expressed about the nutritional quality of foods sold in the schools, particularly in primary schools. However, there is no evidence to suggest that the nutritional quality of primary school foods is any better than those in secondary schools. This illustrates the need for more research and perhaps the need for more awareness raising among primary school staff and parents.

Many schools, especially primary schools, reported that they had school food policies. A disturbing finding was that there were no differences in the presence and number of fast food vending machines between secondary schools with or without food policies. The financial incentives from manufacturers and suppliers for schools to provide vending machines is an increasingly attractive way to generate funds and address tightening school budgets. (11) This, together with after-school sporting and other activities in secondary schools, helps schools to justify their decision to offer high-energy products from vending machines. The finding that only 31% of secondary respondents indicated concern about the nutritional content of vending machines, suggests that there is widespread lack of awareness within school communities about what constitutes healthy food. More research about the operation and effects of school food policies on children's food consumption and nutrition status is required.

The presence of a food policy, however, was associated with several positive factors. There were higher levels of satisfaction with school foods, more perceptions of consistency between the canteen services and the curriculum, and in secondary schools, less reliance on outsourcing and more reliance on internal resources like paid managers, parent and student volunteers. However, relatively few students were involved in food service provision (Table 6), which may represent missed educational opportunities. Adoption of school food policies can help integrate the curriculum and school food services. The Health-Promoting Schools approach (12) supports such integration, but it needs to be implemented by more schools in order to have a greater impact.

These findings raise several implications for the school food supply and for nutrition education. The first concerns the feeding responsibilities of school canteens, for example, how many meals should they provide each day; which nutritional standards should they adopt; and how should they be funded. Some schools incorporate a fruit break in the morning and/or afternoon or they may allow students to bring water bottles to class to provide respite from class activities and support for the notion of healthy eating and drinking within the school. (11) These examples suggest that schools can provide supportive policies based on sound nutrition principles. A whole school approach, involving teachers who are informed about health and nutrition, students, parents and canteen staff is required.

A second issue concerns canteen operations. Is outsourcing a guaranteed route to low food quality? The effect of outsourcing on food quality is unclear and requires further research. For example, could students play bigger roles in school food services; how should parents and government contribute to the costs of provision of healthy foods and beverages? The ways in which these questions are answered in practice may not matter so long as students have access to healthy food during the day in appropriate amounts and at reasonable prices.

Third, this study has shown that several actions are likely to be supported by school staff, such as attendance at short business and nutrition courses and participation in 'healthy food' award schemes. These are not new ideas but they present major opportunities for health and education organisations to provide them.

Fourth, school food policies are a popular notion and they appear to be associated with health promoting activities. Perhaps education and health organisations could promote and support the adoption of 'model' school food policies. Nutrition Australia has recently provided one such example. (13) An essential feature of model food policies should be monitoring of their effectiveness in shifting the school food supply towards those foods recommended in the dietary guidelines for children and adolescents.

Future research could confirm and extend the findings from this preliminary study and in so doing overcome its limitations. These include the brief nature of the questions asked of school councils and the absence of detailed examination of foods consumed during school hours and their contribution towards overall food intake. The lower response rate of the primary schools requires further examination; it may have been due to the nature of the questions posed or to the known participation of the Victorian Home Economics and Textiles Teachers' Association with secondary education or to other factors.

Conclusion

This study has shown that Victorian schools face complex issues in running school canteens. Most are interested in improving food quality through a variety of actions, especially via school food policies. There is a major opportunity for professional organisations to advocate for the supply of healthier school foods.

The present study has shown that:

* Most schools provide food services primarily at lunchtime and at morning recess with around one-third opening before school

* Over 40% of secondary schools have outsourced their food services and about half have paid canteen managers. Volunteer parents are utilised in just over one-third of primary and secondary schools; relatively few students are involved in canteen operations

* Vending machines are present in over half the secondary schools; one in five of these schools have three or more vending machines

* Parent and council satisfaction and canteen food consistency with the curriculum were reported to be higher in primary schools than in secondary schools. Secondary school respondents appear to be more dissatisfied with the status quo

* Generally, secondary school respondents expressed more interest in additional services to improve the quality of food served in canteens

* More primary schools reported having school food policies. Secondary schools that had food policies tended to be more interested in additional services and used volunteer parents and student and paid canteen managers more than schools without policies, which relied more on outsourcing

Given the importance of breakfast and the finding that up to one in five of primary children do not have regular breakfasts, (7) more attention might be paid to ensure that food consumed before school (as well as during the school day) is nutritious.

Recent research suggests that over 70% of Australians have fared badly during the last 20 years of economic reforms (8) and now work longer, for less real wages than 20 years ago, to a greater extent than most Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. (9) Therefore, it is not surprising that only a minority of schools rely on parent volunteers and that many secondary schools rely on outsourced food services.

In other countries, governments subsidise the provision of healthy foods to children. This is certainly not the case in Victoria but we do need to discuss whether we should change our traditional arrangements so that we ensure that all children are well fed.

Acknowledgements

The authors wish to express their thanks to the Victorian Department of Education and Training for permission to survey school staff and to the many principals, teachers and canteen staff who took part in the study. The study was supported by a small grant from Deakin University.

References

1. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Labour Force Status and Other Characteristics of Families. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2000.

2. Magarey A, Daniels LA, Boulton TJC. Prevalence of overweight and obesity in Australian children and adolescents: reassessment of 1985 and 1995 data against new standard international definitions. Med J Aust 2001; 174: 561-4.

3. Cleland V, Worsley A, Crawford D. What are grade 5 and 6 children buying from school canteens and what do parents and teachers think about it? A study in Victoria, Australia. Nutr Diet 2004; 61: 145-50.

4. French SA, Jeffrey RW, Story M et al. Pricing and promotion effects on low-fat vending snack purchases: the CHIPS study. Am J Public Health 2001; 91: 112-17.

5. Stanton R. Into the Mouths of Babes: Marketing to Children. The 1998 Jo Rogers Memorial Oration. Australian Nutrition Foundation. (Cited 1 April 2005.) Available from URL: http://www.nutritionaustralia.org/News_in_Nutrition/Published_Papers/Orations/marketing_to_children.asp

6. Kellett E, Pech K. The School Canteen Manual: A Hands-on Approach for South Australian Schools. Adelaide: Children's Health Development Foundation, 1997.

7. Dillman DA. Mail and Internet Surveys: The Tailored Design Method. New York: Wiley, 2000.

8. SPSS. SPSS for Windows, Version 11. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001.

9. Burns C. A Review of the Literature Describing the Link between Poverty, Food Insecurity and Reference to Australia. Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, 2004. (Cited 28 February 2005.) Available from URL: http://www.vichealth.vic.gov.au

10. Bell AC, Swinburn BA. What are the key food groups to target for preventing obesity and improving nutrition in schools? Eur J Clin Nutr 2004; 58: 258-63.

11. World Health Organization. Development of Health-Promoting Schools: A Framework for Action. Working Group on Health Promoting Schools, Regional Guidelines. Shanghai, 4-8 December 1995. Copenhagen: World Health Organization.

12. Story M, French S. Food advertising and marketing directed at children and adolescents in the US. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 2004; 1: 3.

13. Nutrition Australia: Nutrition in Schools Advisory Service. Adopting a Health Promoting Schools Philosophy. (Cited 12 December 2004.) Available from URL: http://www.nutritionaustralia.org/Nutrition_In_Schools/

Deakin University, Melbourne

B. Maddock, BEd(Home Economics), Faculty of Education

A. Worsley, BSc(Hons), PhD, Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research

Victorian Home Economics and Textiles Teachers' Association, Melbourne

C. Warren, BEd(Home Economics), MBL

Correspondence: A. Worsley, CPAN, School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Deakin University, 221 Burwood Highway, Burwood, Vic. 3125, Australia. Email: tonyw@deakin.edu.au

All three authors conceptualised the project. B. Maddock designed the questionnaire with inputs from the other two authors. C. Warren administered the questionnaires and supervised the coding and entry of the responses into an Excel spread sheet. T. Worsley analysed the data using SPSS version 11.0 and wrote the manuscript with inputs from the other authors.
Table 1. Student enrolments of the participating primary and secondary
schools

 Primary schools Secondary schools
Student no. n (%) n (%)

 <200 58 (39) 18 (9)
 200-500 70 (47) 60 (29)
 501-1000 14 (9) 77 (37)
>1000 8 (6) 53 (26)

Table 2. Canteen services offered by government primary and secondary
schools in Victoria

 Primary schools Secondary schools
 n (%) n (%)

Do you have a school canteen? (Yes) 89 (59) 200 (96)
When is your canteen open?
 Before school 7 (5) 109 (52)
 Recess (a.m.) 56 (37) 195 (94)
 Lunch 84 (56) 200 (96)
 Recess (p.m.) 0 (0) 16 (8)
 After school 1 (1) 16 (8)
Who operated your canteen?
 Entirely outsourced 19 (13) 89 (43)
 Paid canteen manager 41 (27) 107 (51)
 Volunteers parents 66 (37) 77 (37)
 Students 6 (4) 34 (16)
 Other 3 (2) 4 (22)
Do you have vending machines in your 1 (1) 112 (55)
 school? (Yes)
 One machine (n) 49
 Two machines (n) 26
 Three or more (n) 25
Does your school have a food policy 53 (62) 88 (45)
 for your canteen? (Yes)

 [chi square] (a) P-value

Do you have a school canteen? (Yes) 79.94 0.0001
When is your canteen open?
 Before school 90.67 0.0001
 Recess (a.m.) 132.37 0.0001
 Lunch 85.69 0.0001
 Recess (p.m.) 12.08 0.0001
 After school 9.50 0.0020
Who operated your canteen?
 Entirely outsourced 37.54 0.0001
 Paid canteen manager 20.89 0.0001
 Volunteers parents 0.01 0.9460
 Students 13.39 0.0001
 Other 0.00 0.9590
Do you have vending machines in your 101.50 0.0001
 school? (Yes)
 One machine (n)
 Two machines (n)
 Three or more (n)
Does your school have a food policy 6.31 0.0140
 for your canteen? (Yes)

(a) [chi square] based on 2 X 2 tables.

Table 3. Satisfaction with aspects of primary and secondary school food
services

 Primary schools Secondary schools
 n (%) n (%)

Is your school council satisfied 72 (84) 116 (73)
 with the nutritional content of
 canteen foods sold in your
 school? (Yes)
Are parents satisfied with the 75 (84) 117 (59)
 nutritional content of your
 canteen foods? (Yes)
Are there any issues with the 0 (0) 35 (31)
 nutritional content of vending
 machine foods? (Yes)
Does foods sold in the canteen 57 (66) 75 (42)
 reflect the nutritional knowledge
 taught in your school? (Yes)

 [chi square] P-value

Is your school council satisfied 3.62 0.0600
 with the nutritional content of
 canteen foods sold in your
 school? (Yes)
Are parents satisfied with the 24.55 0.0001
 nutritional content of your
 canteen foods? (Yes)
Are there any issues with the 9.37 0.0250
 nutritional content of vending
 machine foods? (Yes)
Does foods sold in the canteen 13.52 0.0001
 reflect the nutritional knowledge
 taught in your school? (Yes)

Table 4. Additional services desired by primary and secondary schools

 Primary schools Secondary schools
 n (%) n (%)

Assistance with development of food 25 (17) 55 (26)
 policy (Yes)
Strategies for dealing with vending 0 (0) 22 (11)
 machines (Yes)
Ideas for profitable canteen 30 (20) 67 (32)
 operation
Business training for staff or 8 (5) 17 (8)
 volunteers
Staff training courses in safety 14 (9) 13 (13)
 and nutrition
Canteen food award/tick system 23 (15) 64 (31)
 similar to Sun Smart
Ideas for supplier contacts for 37 (25) 79 (38)
 nutritious foods to serve in the
 canteen
Ideas for incorporating aspects of 30 (20) 64 (31)
 the canteen into the curriculum

 [chi square] (a) P-value

Assistance with development of food 4.80 0.0280
 policy (Yes)
Strategies for dealing with vending 16.90 0.0001
 machines (Yes)
Ideas for profitable canteen 6.58 0.0100
 operation
Business training for staff or 1.08 0.2980
 volunteers
Staff training courses in safety 1.14 0.2850
 and nutrition
Canteen food award/tick system 11.29 0.0010
 similar to Sun Smart
Ideas for supplier contacts for 7.05 0.0080
 nutritious foods to serve in the
 canteen
Ideas for incorporating aspects of 5.22 0.0220
 the canteen into the curriculum

(a) [chi square] based on 2 X 2 tables.

Table 5. The associations of school food policies with canteen service
satisfaction and desired additional services

 With food No food
 policy policy
 n (%) n (%)

Do foods sold in the school 30 (70) 98 (22)
 canteen reflect nutrition
 knowledge taught in your
 school? (Yes)
Is your school council 116 (88) 65 (62)
 satisfied with the
 nutritional content of
 canteen foods sold at
 your school? (Yes)
Are parents satisfied with 116 (95) 69 (72)
 the nutritional content
 of your canteen foods?
 (Yes)
Assistance with development 24 (22) 48 (46)
 of food policy (Yes)

 [chi square] (a) P-value

Do foods sold in the school 64.77 0.0001
 canteen reflect nutrition
 knowledge taught in your
 school? (Yes)
Is your school council 21.86 0.0001
 satisfied with the
 nutritional content of
 canteen foods sold at
 your school? (Yes)
Are parents satisfied with 22.52 0.0001
 the nutritional content
 of your canteen foods?
 (Yes)
Assistance with development 13.77 0.0001
 of food policy (Yes)

(a) [chi square] based on 2 X 2 tables.

Table 6. Comparisons of canteen services between primary and secondary
schools with and without food policies

 With food No food
 policy policy
 n (%) n (%) [chi square] (a) P-value

Outsourced food service
 Primary schools 11 (21) 8 (24) 0.144 0.705
 Secondary schools 24 (33) 59 (56) 10.002 0.002
Paid canteen manager
 Primary schools 26 (49) 12 (36) 1.329 0.249
 Secondary schools 53 (60) 49 (46) 3780 0.052
Volunteer parents
 Primary schools 32 (60) 20 (61) 0.000 0.483
 Secondary schools 44 (50) 30 (28) 9.594 0.002
Volunteer students
 Primary schools 2 (4) 4 (12) 2184 0.139
 Secondary schools 22 (25) 11 (10) 7.283 0.007
Vending machines
 Primary schools 1 (2) 0 (0) 0.640 0.425
 Secondary schools 43 (49) 62 (59) 1.780 0.182

(a) [chi square] based on 2 X 2 tables.
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Title Annotation:Original research
Author:Worsley, Anthony
Publication:Nutrition & Dietetics: The Journal of the Dietitians Association of Australia
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Date:Jun 1, 2005
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