As was stated in the Fine Gael manifesto:
“Fine Gael recognises the challenge posed by obesity among children and young people and will seek to develop a series of health and education initiatives to combat this.”
The tackling of childhood obesity involves many problems. As an ex-school principal, I am aware that many more children are entering school already overweight and an increasing number of babies are born overweight. The problem is exacerbated when parents’ income does not afford them the luxury of buying more expensive cuts of meat.
I propose a deeper engagement by schools which should begin with training for teachers on nutrition. There is a multitude of misleading labelling and misinformation on what is meant by ‘’low fat’’ and other descriptors. It is vital for this type of information to be included as part of teacher training so that it can be incorporated into the curriculum. It is vital, of course, that any such initiative is implemented sensitively. Overweight children are susceptible to bullying and teachers will be aware that they must not be seen, in imparting information to students, to be singling out children whose weight is beyond the healthy range. I also propose regular visits by district nurses which would offer invaluable opportunities to educate parents with regard to healthy eating.
The food produced in this country is of a very high nutritional level, the problem arises when it undergoes processing and the additives and preservatives are introduced. Dr. Donal O’Shea has warned that there may be a diabetes epidemic about to happen which could cost billions of euro to address. That must be taken on board.
The issue of pro-eating disorder websites appearing on the internet is one which I take very seriously. These websites define and promote anorexia and bulimia as conscious choices and a lifestyle. They are called pro-ana and pro-mia websites and exploit the vulnerability of people whose ability to reason logically is impaired. I propose that such websites should be blocked to protect our young and easily shaped minds.
A study published online in the European Eating Disorder Review in January 2009 was based on research on school students in Belgium. Some 12.6% of girls and 5.9% of boys aged 13, 15 and 17 had access to pro-anorexic websites. Visiting such sites was associated with a higher drive for thinness and higher levels of perfectionism. No such figures are available for Ireland but, based on the number of people who have contacted me as a Deputy, ex-school principal and teacher, I have no doubt that the figures are just as depressing for Ireland. Action must be taken to ensure we protect our children from what is a serious problem among many young people. America, France and the UK have made efforts to block access to such websites but have not been successful. It is important that Ireland also investigates ways to protect our young and vulnerable people and learns from actions taken by other countries.
I am very concerned about the number of parents in my constituency who contacted me about these websites. I looked at them for research purposes and I was shocked by the images of thin people proffered as thinspiration. As a Government, I am glad to see we are exploring ways of protecting our vulnerable. I am delighted to know that Internet service providers in Ireland have a code of practice. I propose for Internet providers to look at the websites in question and ensure minimum standards in respect of dealing with complaints.
Healthy Eating for Students
The subjects Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) and Physical Education (PE) at primary level, and these subjects together with Home Economics at second level, cover the areas of healthy eating and the food pyramid, healthy lifestyle, physical health, body care, exercise, relaxation and diet. Schools devise healthy lunch policies as part of SPHE.
The majority of schools currently participating in the School Completion Programme operate breakfast clubs or other meal provision, in accordance with the nutritional guidelines issued by the Department of Social Protection.
The Food Dudes programme, which encourages a healthy eating culture within schools, is being rolled out on a national basis to all primary schools over a 5 year period.