Banning junk food near schools, one of India’s biggest and long-running public health issues, seems like it will continue some more after industry officials and health activists on a court–appointed panel were unable to forge a common direction.
The panel of experts, which includes environmentalists, nutritionists, doctors, scientists and food industry representatives, was asked by the High Court of Delhi earlier this year to analyse the harmful effects of junk food—defined as foods that are high in fat, or sugar or salt—and recommend guidelines for quality and safety in food made available to students in school canteens.
Onus on student
In its draft guidelines, both sides have been unable to agree on the need to completely ban food items commonly categorised as junk food in and around 500 metres of school grounds.
According to media reports, food industry representatives had suggested an indicative list of recommended food in schools, and were not keen to toe the other’s line on a complete ban on junk food, as demanded by the other side.
Moreover, food industry officials put their weight behind an “eat less/eat just right/eat judiciously,” policy under which the onus is on the students to be careful of how much and what they consume in school canteens.
The food industry side also suggested improving the wholesomeness of foods made available in schools and setting up school health teams, which can ensure the quality and safety of food made available to students.
All in the air
The other side, however, contested their arguments and pointed out that the HC order was clear in terms of it expressing concern over the ill effects of junk food in dietary habits of school kids.
They also questioned the feasibility of implementing and monitoring guidelines proposed by the industry players, arguing that it will be virtually impossible to monitor the conversion of unhealthy junk food to healthy food.
The “healthy” side also penned in the report that the industry representatives had failed to mention or acknowledge the rising incidence of obesity in children and its direct correlation to junk food.
Both sides are also divided on the importance of exercise for children to offset the ill effects of junk food—while industry officials propagated more exercise, the other side argued that no amount of exercise can negate problems due to overeating.
Experts on the other side also attacked the policy of eating right/eating judiciously propagated by food industry representatives saying that it suffered from a lack of clarity and is very open-ended.
It was in 2010 that the court recommended banning the sale of junk foods in school, but
said nothing about junk foods on-sale near schools hearing a public interest litigation case originally filed by a Delhi-based NGO Uday Foundation.
The foundation had asked for the sale of junk food and aerated drinks to be outlawed in schools as well as within a 500-metre radius.
But in 2011, in what was a last-minute move, the Delhi High Court received a plea from the All India Food Processors Association asking to be heard out before passing any order on the ban.
However, in 2012, India’s food agency indicated it would follow guidance from a local court to restrict their availability around schools. In a reply to the Delhi High Court, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India said then it had heeded the court’s direction to formulate the standards on quality and safe food in schools.
The same court gave the FSSAI a period of six months to frame standards on the sale of junk food and aerated drinks in and around educational institutions in the country, which were expected by Mar 22, 2013 from the panel.