How the humble school canteen became a model of healthy living

Canteen staff at the Ainslie school Su Suren, Diane Bugg, manager Ari Hansell, Willow Condi, Marita Johnston and Nani ...
Canteen staff at the Ainslie school Su Suren, Diane Bugg, manager Ari Hansell, Willow Condi, Marita Johnston and Nani Winasti. Photo: Karleen Minney

Gone are the days of pushing a sausage roll and packet of lollies over the counter - Canberra's school canteens have evolved into a model of healthy living.

Workers have become meal planners, cooks, health promoters and managers working to keep a small business afloat while following strict government guidelines aimed at improving the health outcomes of children.

Every canteen menu item in every school is audited every year to ensure they comply with national guidelines. The massive culture shift, expected within the canteen and wider school community, has been asked of an already busy workforce composed mostly of volunteers.

Nutrition Australia ACT program manager and accredited practising dietitian Leanne Elliston has supported canteen managers through the transition, which accelerated when the ACT government introduced tight regulations about what could be sold in 2015.

Her audit of school canteens last year found 10 per cent met national guidelines on having majority 'green' or healthy items while 16 per cent had phased out red items. The body is now halfway through its 2017 audit.

"It is a whole shift of mindset from the days where you could serve treats and dish up pastries and it was all quite simple as well because it was such easy food that lasted for a long time on the shelf, it didn't go off, it didn't require much effort to put together, but also quite unhealthy and not good for our children during school hours when they need to think and concentrate," Ms Elliston said.

"Now since the policy has been out they've been able to meet the policy and we have particularly in this past run of audits … we are seeing some great changes, some really impressive stuff."

Ainslie School's shift towards healthy food started about 10 years ago when school parent Libby Bailey put her hand up to volunteer in the school canteen.

Pastries packed with preservatives reheated in pie warmers were swapped for homemade sausage rolls and curries made from scratch. Juice was binned. The term one menu for Oishii Canteen - oishii roughly translating from Japanese to mean a positive eating experience - features a 'bento box surprise', spaghetti bolognaise and hot chicken wraps.


Green food items are highlighted with a smiley face and vegetarian and halal options are also clearly identified. The canteen has its own Instagram and attracts workers by suggesting people out of work volunteer to improve their employability or new arrivals to Australia use the experience as a chance to learn English.

"ACT Health has been very supportive through their Fresh Taste program and that's allowed both canteens and schools to have a look at how they can improve access to healthy food and information in schools," Ms Bailey said.

"[But] you get a new policy or a new suggestion and you think well, who's going to pay for that or which volunteers are going to do that because we know that research says there's less and less volunteers across the community for anything, so if they want to reduce things like obesity and increase community connections then there needs to be some dollars and skills, some real professional skills attached to those things in the school setting."

An ACT Education Directorate spokeswoman pointed to a suite of resources available to school canteens, including policies, posters and the Fresh Taste program, which offers training, advice and assistance in implementing healthy eating guidelines.

"The [ACT Nutrition Support Service] also provides regular advice and support to canteens in relation to the canteen menu assessment report and other new menu items to increase healthier choices," she said.

Ms Bailey said passion drove Oishii's volunteers and two paid staff, sharing one position, to continue in their role despite an increasing workload. Watching the change in children made the hard work worthwhile, she said.

"Kids now will show you and be incredibly pumped and proud that 'I've got a wholemeal sandwich and it's got three vegetables on it, I've got my carrot sticks, I've got my hummus, my banana for recess, and I've got some cheese sticks'," she said.

'It's hard work but if you're passionate about healthy communities and healthy kids then you pump the hours into it."


Huge thanks to our Vietnamese Rice Paper Roll team... A very successful last day of term 1 2017 👏🏻 Delicious too 😋

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