Israel Bans Sugary Drinks, Snacks From School Cafeterias

Education Ministry forbids sale of many popular items, including schnitzel, hot dogs and pastries.

Yarden Skop
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Donuts are great fun - until they're not (illustrative).
A child eating a donut, just one of many unhealthy items being taken off school and kindergarten menus.Credit: Dreamstime
Yarden Skop
Yarden Skop

The Education Ministry is banning the sale and serving of sugary drinks and foods that are high in fat, salt or sugar from Israel’s schools and kindergartens.

A directive issued by the ministry’s director general spells out what food can and cannot be served and sold in Israeli schools. On the “yes” list are sandwiches on whole-wheat bread with fillings that include tuna, avocado, egg or low-fat cheese; cut vegetables, fruit and salad; plain yogurt, dried fruit, tofu and pasta with sauce that has a maximum of 9 percent fat.

The “no” list contains many of the most popular offerings in school canteens, such as schnitzel, processed meats (including hot dogs) and high-fat savory pastries like bourekas, malawah and jahnun.

Also prohibited under the new guidelines are cakes, croissants, chocolate bars and candy.

In addition, the ministry specifies that “sweet and sweetened drinks,” including “soft drinks, juices, diet beverages, slushy frozen beverages and energy drinks,” are “absolutely prohibited for sale in canteens, kiosks, coin-operated machines or any event at which food and beverages are sold.”

The directive is the result of years of work by the Education Ministry (with assistance from the Health Ministry), which began during the tenure of then-Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar in 2009. His immediate successor, Shay Piron, passed a law specifying fines for violating the guidelines: For example, up to 6,000 shekels ($1,585) for selling prohibited foods and 1,500 shekels for failing to publish the ingredients and nutritional information of foods sold.

However, the guidelines specifying what foods can and cannot be sold in schools were not issued until now. The directive will be submitted within a few weeks to the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee for its approval, after which the prohibition in principle of the sale of unhealthy foods will go into effect. No fines will be imposed until the 2016-17 school year.

Are artificial sweeteners in 'diet' drinks and foods having exactly the opposite effect of what one might hope? the scientists wondered.Credit: Adi Dovrat-Meseritz

The director general’s directive also contains strict rules regarding the food served as part of the ministry’s hot-lunch program, as well as at the Education Ministry’s residential institutions (boarding schools and so-called youth villages). Permitted proteins are fish, chicken or turkey breast, and a vegetarian option such as beans and lentils. Pasta, couscous, brown rice and quinoa are on the list of complex carbohydrates, while additional permitted foods are fruit, vegetables (raw or cooked) and water. The ministry specifies recommended serving sizes from each food group, by age.

Nearly 200,000 children receive state-subsidized lunches in Israeli schools, most of them located in low-income neighborhoods and communities. Tens of thousands of additional children receive school lunches provided by the local government. Each meal of this type costs between 8 shekels and 12.50 shekels.

With regard to children’s birthday parties in kindergartens, the ministry recommends that fruit and vegetables be served rather than sweets, adding that birthday cake may be served during the party. It also suggests celebrating the birthdays of several children at the same time, “in order to prevent the frequent consumption of cakes and snacks.”

“We are serious about making a change in children’s nutrition,” said Irit Livne, the supervisor for school health in the Education Ministry. “According to Health Ministry figures, almost one-third of children in the sixth grade and younger are overweight. Children who are not overweight also need to eat a balanced and varied diet in order to grow up healthy.

“Healthy children also eat badly,” said Livne. “Poor nutritional quality hurts them later, and also affects their learning abilities. It’s really easy to eat healthily. We’re not fanatics. On a birthday, it’s okay to have cake, but there’s no need for mountains of Bisli [a salty wheat snack] and the like 35 times a year in order to celebrate each child’s birthday. When you sell a pita filled with French fries and topped with ketchup and mayonnaise to a child, it’s damaging to the child. We know that when a change is made to the environment, you can change behavior as well,” she added.

Livne said she is aware that the food manufacturers and owners of the kiosks might have a hard time complying with the new rules, and that students and their parents won’t like all of them. “The right thing is to change the opinions of the children in a joint process, but it’s our duty as a state,” said Livne.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett backed the initiative. “The educational system has a duty to promote a healthy lifestyle for Israel’s children. A child who eats correctly and is physically active is a healthy child who is more focused in the classroom,” Bennett said. “I hope the habits we are instilling in the schools and kindergartens will also contribute to changing the eating habits of parents and the whole family.”