This study investigated schools’ and parents’ perspective about the school food policy in Dutch primary schools. The study shows that most primary schools paid attention to nutrition and health. Most schools had a written food policy and informed parents about the food rules. Furthermore, in most schools education on nutrition was part of the school curriculum and most schools participated in specific nutrition projects. In general, parents appreciated the school food rules. Most principals believed that they had only a supportive role to foster healthy eating behaviour among children and considered parents to be primarily responsible. About half of the parents believed that schools should play a role in encouraging healthy food habits among children.
Only few studies have examined schools’ or parents’ view on the school food policy. For example, a USA study among teachers and parents of middle-school students found that both parents and teachers were concerned about the school food environment and believed that schools should offer students healthier food and beverages and limit low-nutrient food products . However, the results of that study are not comparable with ours, since the school food environment at Dutch primary schools is very different (e.g. at Dutch primary schools no school meals are offered). A European study also found that parents and teachers considered the school food policy to be important, and the majority agrees that there should be a school policy restricting consumptions of snacks and soft drinks .
The majority of the principals reported that their school had a food policy: 57.1% reported to have food rules and 37.1% of the principals reported that their school had recommendations about the food and/or beverages children were allowed to consume during school time. Surprisingly, even more parents (78.2%) reported that the school of their child had rules about the food and beverages children were allowed to consume during the morning break. An explanation for the differences in reported school food rules by principals and parent could be that in the semi-structured interviews with principals and teachers a distinction was made between “rules” and “recommendations”, while the parent questionnaire did not. It is possible that parents reported that the school of their child had food rules, while the school in fact had recommendations. Another notable difference concerns the reported food rules for the morning break and for the lunch break by parents. Of the parents, 72.8% reported that their child’s school had rules about the food and drinks that children were allowed to consume during the morning break, but only 42.8% of the parents reported food rules for the lunch break. An explanation for this may be that some of the parents are not aware of the rules about the food and beverages that could be consumed during lunch break, because their child goes home for lunch.
However, it is a positive sign that the majority of the primary schools in our study sample had a written food policy and informed parents about the policy. However, having a food policy does not ensure monitoring and compliance with the policy. The content of the policy, implementation, communication, enforcement and support of stakeholders are important factors that influence the effectiveness of a policy. Our results show that the food rules were not always clearly formulated. Some schools argued that they had food rules while other schools referred to ‘recommendations’. In daily practice, however, there was little difference between so-called rules or recommendations about food and beverages. However, due to the vaguely formulated food rules, enforcement of these rules is difficult. Well-formulated rules provide clarity and help to ensure their enforcement. In addition, most schools had no clear approach of how to deal with children who brought food to school that was not allowed in school. In most cases the approach depended on the supervising teacher. Furthermore, supervision was difficult because children often eat their snacks while playing outside.
It is remarkable that most schools did not have food rules regarding birthday celebrations. Several USA studies reported that classroom celebration treats consist of low-nutrient calorie-dense snacks . For example, the mean calorie intake during classroom celebrations for first-grade school children was estimated at 550 ± 212 calories . Also, in the Netherlands, most birthday celebration treats are low-nutrient calorie-dense snacks such as potato chips, candy bars and cake . Because on average there are ± 20–30 children in a classroom, a classroom celebration occurs regularly. Some principals stated that children at an infant school (children aged 4–7 years) sometimes offered fruit as a birthday celebration, however older children (junior school) rarely chose fruit for a birthday celebration. A possible explanation for this difference might be peer pressure: i.e. fruit or healthy snacks do not have a ‘cool’ image. However, birthday celebrations are a tradition at primary schools in the Netherlands and schools apparently have difficulty in adopting a restrictive policy regarding treats offered in birthday celebrations. A restrictive policy may be a promising way to provide a more healthy school food environment, because birthday celebration treats are mostly low in nutrient and high in calories, and such foods are also provided during other occasions at school, such as sports events, Christmas and other holiday celebrations.
Also notable is the difference between infant and junior schools: some principals mentioned that at infant school it was more obligatory for children to eat fruit during morning breaks. Also there was more supervision regarding the foods and beverages children bring to school (most younger children eat their morning break snack in the classroom). Some of the schools organised meetings to inform parents about school issues including the food policy, these meetings were only for parents of children at infant school and not for parents of children at junior school. An explanation for these differences may be that schools expect children and parents in junior schools to be more familiar with the food policy and thus better comply with the food rules during the remainder of their stay at school. However, schools could be more active and structured in bringing the food policy to the attention of parents and children, especially in junior school where peer pressure may increase.
The majority of principals and teachers believed that parents are primarily responsible for the acquisition of healthy eating habits in children and that schools play a supportive role in fostering children’s healthy eating habits. However, schools should consider themselves fully responsible to encourage healthy eating habits among children during school time. Dutch primary schools could be more involved in fostering healthy dietary behaviour among children by offering school meals, as often occurs in the UK and other countries; however, in the Dutch culture this may be difficult to implement. In addition to the school, parents can also take responsibility for fostering healthy eating habits among their children by, for example, supporting the school food policy.
Besides schools and parents, the government can also play a role in encouraging school food policies and a healthy eating environment at schools. Governments can encourage schools to have a food policy, to provide programs to stimulate healthy foods, set nutritional standards for the foods that are available at schools or provide national lunch programs. For example, national distribution schemes which provide free fruit and vegetables to children at schools have been implemented in the UK and USA [30, 31]. Several years ago, the Australian government recommended that all primary schools implement a fruit and vegetable program (called ‘Crunch&Sip’) that provides a time in the class that children consume fruit and vegetables they bring from home . Also in the Netherlands, there are some programs, such as Schoolgruiten (an initiative of the Dutch government in cooperation with other stakeholders such as The Netherlands Nutrition Centre Foundation), which is a program to stimulate children to eat fruit or vegetables during the morning break . Governments can provide and support initiatives to improve the school food policy and environment; however the success of such initiatives depends on the adaptation and implementation of all relevant stakeholders including the school staff and parents.
Strengths and limitations
A major strength of this study was the use of data from multiple sources. We collected data on the school’s perspective from principals and teachers, as well as data on the parental perspective. Furthermore, the sample was relatively large: we interviewed 74 principals and 72 teachers from 83 schools and 1,429 parents completed the parental questionnaire.
A limitation of this study is that not all data were collected in the same year. Data of parents were collected one year after the interviews with the principals and teachers took place. It is possible that the school food policy had changed during that year, but we believe that this is unlikely. Data from the teachers/principals and the data from the parents were collected from the same schools, but not compared at school level due to the low numbers of respondents per school. Another limitation is that this study does not provide insight into whether the school food policy actual improves the dietary behaviour of children at school. Although, this study identifies some opportunities to improve school food policy, future research should examine the influence of various aspects of school food policy on children’s actual dietary behaviour. Nevertheless, this study provides some valuable knowledge about schools’ and parents’ opinion on school food policy at Dutch primary schools. A final limitation is that the response rate of schools participating in the INPACT study was 34.1% (n = 91). The most frequently given reason for not participating in the INPACT study was a busy curriculum with a focus on the attainment targets (language skills and arithmetic/maths) of primary schools set by the government. The response rate of urban and rural schools was the same. Furthermore, the sample of schools in the INPACT study reflects the variety of schools in the Dutch primary school system and contains religious schools, public schools and schools based on various educational movements (e.g. Steiner Waldorf education or Montessori schools). A rather low school response rate may impact the generalizability of the results. However, we have no reason to believe that the non-response among schools had an important effect on our results because their refusal was not connected with the subject of the presented study (at the time of recruitment for the INPACT study this sub-study had not yet been designed). Furthermore, 91.3% of the participating schools in the INPACT study took part in the interviews which is a high response rate. Moreover, 77.5% of the parents participate in this study.