View from here - Hold the tacos and pork rinds

11th June 2010 at 01:00
Mexico has almost as much childhood obesity as its portly neighbour to the north. Now, Frank Nowikowski reports, schools are battling the bulge

Jamie Oliver's campaign to improve school dinners in the US may be slowly gathering supporters north of the border, but here in Mexico the government has not needed the intervention of a British chef to help it clamp down on unhealthy food. According to preliminary plans, all fried snacks and fizzy drinks will be banned from schools from the next academic year.

After the US, Mexico has the highest proportion of obese children, public officials claim. Around 4 million children between the ages of five and 11 are obese or overweight - though government figures are not precise in a nation that does not know even how many teachers it has on the payroll.

In 2000 the health secretariat spent #163;1.9 billion - a quarter of its budget, addressing obesity. The amount spent rose to #163;3.6 billion in 2008 and is projected to jump to #163;8.6 billion by 2017.

In a plan to be phased in gradually, school canteens and tuck shops will be prohibited from offering foods containing high amounts of sugar and salt. Companies like Coca Cola and Pepsi will be told to replace sugary drinks with healthier alternatives on school properties.

Schools will be required to draw up their own lists of permitted foods, in line with the new regulations. School meal providers that do not comply will lose their concessions, according to the plan.

The changes are to be phased in gradually, giving suppliers time to find alternative raw materials and to give the food processing industry time to develop new technologies.

Additionally, teacher-training programmes will be geared to supporting new eating habits.

The calorie-reduction plan is intended to be implemented alongside a government programme to get children to spend more time on physical activities in school. All this will be an uphill battle. Some 13 per cent of primary schools, and 7 per cent of secondary schools, have no sports facilities.

Also undermining the programme is the ready availability of foods such as tacos and fried pork rinds at informal stalls on every street corner. Children swarm to these at lunch time and after school.

The government has no plans to deal effectively with these illegal and unsanitary stands except to "encourage" them to offer healthier foods.

Given Mexico's culture of ignoring unenforced laws it is unlikely that informal vendors will switch because of encouragement to do so. Junk foods are generally cheaper - an important factor in a country in which a large proportion of people live in poverty.

Soft drink manufacturers like Coca Cola and Pepsi had long fought the proposed changes. but recently came aboard, first saying that they would remove their products altogether from schools, then changing their minds and saying instead they'll switch to offering healthier alternatives such as bottled water.

Their experiences in England's state schools, where fizzy drinks were banned in 2006, may help them prepare for the change.

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