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Caterer and suppliers address obesity concern

Caterer and suppliers rise to challenge of global obesity concerns

A deal announced this month that high-calorie fizzy drinks will no longer be sold in thousands of schools across the US is being seen as a leap forward in the fight against childhood obesity and an example of cooperation between the drinks industry and health groups.

Drinks giants Cadbury Schweppes, Coca Cola and PepsiCo have signed up to the deal which will see only unsweetened juice, water and low-fat milks sold in primary and intermediate schools, with diet drinks allowed in high schools.

New Zealand food service company, Eurest, which provides catering to schools, hospitals and workplaces around the country, sees the involvement of the makers of fizzy drinks in the agreement as part of a growing trend in the fight to combat obesity.

"It's increasingly clear that companies traditionally seen as being part of the problem have to form part of the solution," says chief executive John Weeds.

New Zealand parents are increasingly concerned at the type and quality of food available to children at school, and are becoming more vocal in demanding change. In less than two months over 3,500 people signed an on-line petition run by Fight the Obesity Epidemic, aimed at getting Parliament to prevent the sale of junk food on school premises and ban advertisements for junk food and drink during children's television.

But with figures showing that well over half New Zealand's adults are overweight or obese, the battle to get people to make healthy choices in their eating habits is clearly not easily won.

"There's a lot of information out there, but it's not getting through to a lot of people," says Weeds.

"We decided to take a positive approach first by offering education and information alongside a choice of food, and then by working with our clients and suppliers to encourage them to make their food healthier."

It's an approach that has proved a success. The Taste Life programme, which ensures healthy choices are available on the menu and provides guidance on leading a healthy lifestyle, is running at more than 30 schools, universities, hospitals and business cafeterias around New Zealand.

Under the dietitian-supervised programme, suppliers are urged to provide diet drinks and lower-fat snacks for vending machines, while wholemeal bread and salads feature in the cafeterias.

Eurest dietitian, Kristin Leaity, says Australian studies suggest that obese children have a 25-50% chance of becoming obese adults.

"The risk for older teens may be as high as 78%, and findings are similar all over the world. It's incredibly important to encourage children to eat healthily to help them avoid a lifetime of being overweight and a whole raft of potential health problems."

Under the programme foods are labelled in green, amber and red for "eat most", "eat moderately" and "eat less", aimed at getting children to choose a meal low in saturated fat, low in salt and high in fibre. Additionally, there is a monthly education theme featuring cards and posters offering information on a range of diet-related topics from portion control to foods that will help maintain mental stamina at exam time.

"We know that the nutrition requirements of a group of energetic teenage boys are different to those of office workers or patients in hospital," says Leaity.

"Our menus are designed with that in mind and constantly reviewed to provide variety and best practice. The important thing is to get people to form healthy eating habits that they'll take home with them for their whole lives."

It's an approach that needs the involvement of caterer, supplier and client in order to be successful. Employers, schools and hospitals are beginning to be actively engaged in the argument that says the implications of the obesity problem are too serious and far-reaching to be addressed without cooperation from all stakeholders.

Diagnostic Medlab is the largest community medical testing laboratory in New Zealand. Providing a round the clock pathology service to more than 2000 doctors and health professionals in the Auckland area, its cafeteria caters to 400 staff. Six months ago Diagnostic Medlab implemented Eurest's Taste Life programme with the aim of offering high-quality, healthy food to its staff.

Laboratory support manager, Daphne Fairfoot says it has been a popular initiative.

"We've had nothing but positive feedback from staff at all levels. As a company we take our responsibilities to our employees very seriously, and ensuring that we offer food and choices that are actively healthy is part of that."

Ends


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