Junk food is bad for your health. We have brought this up time and again. We have written reports, roared from rooftops, and even run a marathon to get the word out. So why are we going back to the same story? Because the story may have been told and retold, but the message is yet to sink in. Why? Because junk food looks tempting, which makes it wildly popular. The look is carefully nurtured by corporate giants. Do you know that the snack food corporations spend millions in developing this ‘I am hip, I love to eat junk’image via advertising. It is not stylish to choose home-cooked meals over the junk fare,they declare. Over and over again.Till everyone is convinced. We understand the huge challenge that lies before us. We really do. We are pitted against some of the most powerful and rich players in the business. We cannot beat them in the ad game.Simply because we cannot afford it.We cannot set up larger-than-life billboards at every street corner. Or blare our message at you from radio sets and or even deliver slick lines in between your favourite television shows. But we are still confident of winning. In the name of good health. We shall keep pushing and prodding. Till we can convince you to take over the mantle.
Earlier this year, Union Health Ministry issued a notification calling for a ban on junk food and cola in school canteens. Following a Public Interest Litigation from Delhi-based NGO Uday Foundation, Delhi High Court ordered the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to submit draft guidelines on making safe and healthy food available in schools.
The Ministry surveyed over 600 schools across the country to see how to go about it. Canteens or cafeterias have the onus of providing for the nutrition of school students during school hours, said the Ministry. So, nutritional information about all packaged food served should be clearly mentioned, it mandated. And the sale of “junk food which contained no proteins or vitamins but were rich in salt, sugar and high in calories which can cause obesity and hypertension” should be “regulated”.
That’s all very well, but how do schools make sure they stock healthy food and the kids eat it too? Is an all-out ban really effective at weaning children off of a bad habit? GT went looking for the answers to Ground Zero – school canteens. We wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth. What do students, like you, feel about junk food? Do they talk about nutritional information to their friends? But before we get to all that…
Policy versus personal action
Certain things require concerted pushing of policymakers to deliver change. Like mining or land laws. And then there are those things that do require a policy push, but for real change, they require action in personal lives of people. Like health related issues such as junk food or the tobacco habit. Here, you can only bring about real change by changing personal habits.
But why should you avoid eating junk food? Well, there are a number of reasons. Let us start with the more obvious ones…
HIGH IN CALORIES, LOW IN NUTRITION: Junk food is low in fiber, high in fat and high in sugar in liquid form. So that is a whole BUNCH of calories, but ZERO nutrition. Poor diet slows growth, decays teeth, promotes obesity and sow seeds of infirmity leading to incurable diseases when you’re older. Did you know food containing low nutrition value tends to reduce the IQ level of children?
FAT GETS FATTER. NONSTOP: The fatty acids in junk food mess with the hormones in your brain. These hormones – leptin and insulin – regulate your weight by telling you that you are full. With junk food, the body doesn’t get that signal, so you keep gorging and gorging and gorging…
EMPTY CALORIES ARE FULL OF DISEASE: Candies and cakes. Chocolates and bakes. We all love sweet stuff right? But sugar is an empty calorie. Fructose can trigger processes that lead to liver toxicity and other chronic diseases. Well, isn’t that sweet?
ENERGY DRINKS GIVE YOU NO ENERGY: Except for sugar, the other ingredients in these drinks – caffeine, taurine, sweeteners and supplements – give you no energy. Many people get short bouts of energy from the gigantic amounts of sugar in it. Who wants to take a guess at the amount? There are approximately 13 teaspoons in a 500ml can. Digest that.
Have we got your attention now?
So, what have you decided? Pig out on burgers and colas as usual or change to a healthy balanced diet regularly? If you need help deciding, hear these guys out.
Our cross section of Green Schools Programme partner schools gives us an insight into the pervasiveness of the problem. As you can see we have left no one out. From resource-rich private school students who can afford endless packets of chips and bottles of colas, to the ‘poor’ government school students for whom most of the decisions are made by those sitting ‘upstairs’. Panditji went from principals to teachers to canteen coordinators, and from student to student to discuss the dynamics of junk food. You will be surprised by what he found.
Q. Hello ma’am! How is your school instilling healthy habits in the students?
“We have always encouraged healthy eating habits among students through various campaigns and activities such as our ‘Get Active’ and ‘Drink Milk’ campaigns.
To give you another example, we celebrate ‘Yellow Day’ and ‘Green Day’ where children are encouraged to eat yellow and green food items such as dal, melon, green gram, vegetables etc.
Principal - Darbari Lal DAV School, Pitampura
“Our students eat in class rooms and teachers eat with them. They are allowed to bring home-made food only.
In rare cases, they buy food from the canteen which has a carefully structured menu.”
Drishti Dr R C Jain Innovative Sr Sec Public School, Narangwal, Ludhiana
“It is compulsory for all students to bring healthy food items in their lunch boxes. Teachers and class monitors conduct surprise checks. The school canteen provides only idlis and chutney to the students who are not allowed to buy food from road-side vendors or bring chips, pastries or biscuits in their boxes.”
Principal - Kerala Public school, Burmamines, Jamshedpur
“We are responsible for the nutrition and healthy eating habits of students on campus. Unfortunately, we have little influence off campus. Providing nutrition is not enough. Awareness about healthy eating is also necessary. Let me share a story with you. During a fund raiser event in school, students of grade 4 and 5 wanted put up a stall selling instant noodles.
I spoke to them and their parents about the health impacts of ingredients such as ajinomoto (Monosodium glutamate) that are added in the noodles’ tastemaker. I even told them about the high level of salt. The students discussed the matter and came back to me saying, ‘We will make our own tastemaker with lesser salt and soya sauce. We will also put vegetables into our noodles to make them healthy.’ You see, students can do very well with just a little bit of guidance.”
Paramjit Kaur Narang
School Director - Pathways Global School, Baliawas, Gurgaon
Q. What is on the menu?
“No aerated drinks, burgers, pizzas or fries are allowed. Our samosas have vegetable filling and our sandwiches have cucumber and tomato in them. For drinks, we only serve juice and lemon water.”
PGT Home Science and Canteen coordinator - Darbari Lal DAV School, Pitampura
“We insist on vegetables in the tiffin. Students can get roti /parantha or rice along. Patties stuffed with vegetables are another option. Noodles and macaroni are not allowed. In summers, nimboo pani is served and in winters, the canteen serves vegetable soup.”
“For breakfast, students get milk, fruit and a cereal (something that sustains them through the day); for lunch, they have a buffet – vegetable pasta, dal, roti, rice, sabzi. There is a salad bar serving greens, nuts and seeds. We used to serve desserts every day but few parents complained about high sugar intake. Now, we serve sweets twice a week. Evening snack is accompanied with freshly squeezed juice.”
Paramjit Kaur Narang
“The school canteen is an informal arrangement with the security guard so that he can earn some additional income. Government schools in Delhi are not supposed to operate canteens otherwise. Ours is a special case.”
Principal of government school in north Delhi
Q. How effective, do you think, would a ban in schools be at making students junk the junk food?
“Junk food has been banned in our school canteen for the past five years. But a blanket ban is not very effective with children. Especially, since junk food is so popular. We have allowed burgers or other snacks once a week.”
“A ban certainly helps as students learn to be satisfied with what they bring from home. Interestingly, when we serve hot samosas on the one designated day of a week, students still prefer to have their food first and have the samosa afterwards.”
“A ban may be helpful. Our job, as educators, is to educate and influence the student in school so that they can use that outside. But they have varied lives outside school so parents need to be sensitised too.”
Paramjit Kaur Narang
“This is not enough. Children get carried away by advertisements and demand such food. The glitz and glamour of junk food does not spare adults so how can we blame the little ones?”
“The word ‘ban’ should not be used. Human nature is such that they only want to do actions that are prohibited. Especially, young students.”
Principal of government school in Delhi
Q. So kids, tell me. What, according to you, is junk food?
“Imbalanced food that is low on nutrition. Most junk food items have higher than the recommended amount of salt, sugar or fat.”
Kartik, Class IX – Pathways Global School, Baliawas, Gurgaon
“Oily, fatty, deep fried food.”
Sameera, Class VIII – Pathways Global School, Baliawas, Gurgaon
“Burgers, patties, pizzas, samosas, aloo tikkis, chhole kulches—whatever one buys from outside. Pizza is the hot favourite! Especially, push cart food is junk food...”
Rakhi Singh, Class X – Government school
“Food which can be made quickly.”
Shreya, Class VII – Drishti School
“Junk food is also called fast food and I think it is very fast in giving us diseases.”
Priyanka, Class X– Drishti School
“Most ingredients of junk food are unhygienic and contain little nutritional value. Fat, sugar, salt and calories are present in large quantity. Manchurian, pasta, pizza, momos, noodles are some examples.”
Archita Bansal, DLDAV School, Pitampura
Q. Tell me the truth. Is junk food really tastier than the food you are served at home? Does it make you cool?
“It is a stereo type statement that junk food is tastier than home-made food. In reality, it is not healthy. It does not make me feel cool.”
Rashmin, Class VII – Drishti School
“For me, junk food is trendier, but not tastier than home-cooked food.”
Priyanka, Class X – Drishti School
“Yes, sometimes it is! No, eating junk food does not make me cool. I eat junk food for taste.”
Kartik Garg, DLDAV School, Pitampura
“Not at all. Many students buy junk food just to flash their money. Buying chips and a burger for lunch is more stylsh than eating dal-roti.”
Tanu, Class XI – government school in north Delhi
Students decide their relationship with junk food for themselves.
Euphemism be darned. Junk food is bad. But it is futile for us to say that one more time. As is evident, all of you know this. Still, some of you choose to live on junk food. Thankfully, a minority consumes it judiciously. But here is the truth. The decision to eat junk food or not is yours. Only yours. The government can make policies and schools can implement them. But you can use these policies in two ways — either as an excuse to indulge in junk food outside of school, or as a reassertion of your decision to stay away from junk, everywhere. ‘You’ is the key word here.
If you want to know more about junk food, read our book ‘Junk Food Busted. Why and How.’
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ELSA SAM