The tension between schools offering a healthy diet and cost-effective food has reached crisis point in the Australian Capital Territory resulting in many school canteens shutting down entirely, according to the ACT Parents & Citizens Associations.
ACT P&C President Vivienne Pearce said the issue had been building for years, but her organisation was now at its wits’ end as to how to solve the crisis. Urgent meetings have been called with the ACT Department of Education, but at the coal-face of school lunch hour, many students were faced with expensive options, or no options at all.
Part of the problem lies in the piecemeal approach to providing food at schools according to Ms Pearce. Each ACT school decides individually how to service its canteens, creating a form of nutritional Russian-roulette for students.
“A lot of it comes down to the individuals running the canteens. Some have small business experience, some don’t … We’ve had instances of canteens going under because they are tens of thousands of dollars in debt,” Ms Pearce said.
But the alternative to volunteer-run canteens, commercial canteen providers contracted directly by schools, were also causing problems according to teachers contacted. “None of the teachers will buy food from the canteen, it’s too expensive and of pretty poor quality,” one ACT public high-school teacher said on condition of anonymity. No teachers contacted were prepared to be named publicly, citing concerns over upcoming moves to make school hiring policies semi-autonomous.
ACT Minister for Education, Dr Chris Bourke, said his department was aware of the problem and had convened a task-force which is due to meet today. The Minister said there were no plans to find extra money in the ACT budget to finance school canteens.
Dianne Whyley of Metro Canteens, a for-profit business that runs canteens at both public and private schools in the ACT, including Gunghalin College, Belconnen High and Marist, said her company was not aware of any problems.
“We do look after 10,000 students a day [in Canberra] and if there has been one complaint, I’m pretty happy with that,” Ms Whyley said. Ms Whyley said her company’s food was delivered with an eye towards nutrition and was reasonably priced. Ms Whyley supplied menus for several schools and the menu for Martist College, selected at random, can be found here.
However, the ACT P&C is not convinced commercial operators are the best solution. “For-profit businesses can put their bottom-line ahead of what’s best for the students … We would like to see the government getting involved with small business training for volunteers and we’ll be discussing that at the upcoming task-force,” Ms Pearce said.
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