politics food policy 711 new brunswick leadership

Leadership takes courage, not common sense

Conviction. Clarity. Change. That’s what I wanted, as a parent and a taxpayer, in the healthier food policy debacle. Not back-tracking and pretending what was written wasn’t what was intended.

I wrote about the policy when it was announced in June. I’ll admit; I skimmed the contents and didn’t truly think through the ramifications, though I did note then that fundraisers would be forced to switch from relying on low nutritional products. But it was information that came into my life and just as quickly left my mind. I, like many other intelligent New Brunswickers, was therefore caught off guard by the policy changes when school resumed. I was upset that the policy would negatively impact breakfast and lunch programs for children living in poverty, as well as long-established school events like Christmas teas and end-of-year fun days. But I’m more upset that the province didn’t stand by its policy.

I was floored when Education Minister Brian Kenny released a statement on the controversy stating that the “spirit of the policy should continue to allow existing fundraisers and the organization of extra-curricular, fundraising and holiday events that include treats. The policy should be applied with common sense and professional judgement.”

The policy, which he released just two months before, states it covers “foods and beverages that are sold, served or otherwise offered … including: classroom, co-curricular, extra-curricular, fundraising, school sponsored and endorsed activities and events.” The only stated exception is the food and beverages parents and guardians send to school with their children. I’m not sure how common sense and judgement would lead you to think cake walk fundraisers and cookie dough sales would be allowed to continue. The minister’s statement adds confusion to the situation and undercuts the work done by health advocates and education administrators.

There is great value in establishing an all-or-none approach to low nutritional value foods in relation to school activities. I expected the department, the minister, the health professionals, and all the supporters to speak up and stand by the decision to limit these items in all school-related activities. I expected them to step forward with policy-appropriate support for the volunteers who bring food to the students who otherwise would not be sent with a meal from home. I expected them to offer explanation and guidance.

Instead, Minister Kenny’s statement says, if re-elected, a Liberal government will “amend the policy if necessary to ensure that these unintended consequences do not continue to occur.” I’d have more respect for the party if they took the unpopular stand of supporting their stance on children’s health over the easy choice of giving in on fundraisers. What was needed was better communication, more education, and the conviction to choose what’s right over what’s popular. Aren’t those also the values we’re trying to teach our children? Be clear with your intent. Make good choices for yourself, regardless of peer pressure. If you have made a mistake, take responsibility.

If a ban on low nutritional foods at fundraisers and extra-curricular events was not the intent of the original policy, then a mistake was made in writing it as such. No one reading the policy would think there was room for interpretation or exemption. I find it insulting to administrators and volunteers who were trying to work within the policy to be told to use ‘common sense;’ they were. Putting the onus on the parents and schools, rather than with the policy makers and minister, is shifting blame and disheartens me greatly. The lack of conviction to stand by what was written is a major blow to efforts to improve nutritional education in this province, not just for children, but for all of us.

A version of this post appeared originally in the Times & Transcript. Click here for more of Jenna Morton’s column, She Said.

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