In 2017, Coca-Cola Beverages South Africa voluntarily announced which would stop supplying sugary drinks to primary schools. The company also pledged to remove all branding and advertising from schools. The announcement came in a letter noting that Coca-Cola Beverages wanted to play “an active role in resolving rising rates of obesity in South Africa, especially among children.”
Childhood obesity is a serious and growing problem in South Africa. More than 13% of children they are obese or overweight. Consumption of liquid sugar is particularly harmful because it is absorbed so quickly into the bloodstream. Not surprisingly, sugary drinks and their marketing have been linked to obesity, especially among children. Only one sugary drink a day increases the probability of overweight of this child by 55%. Similarly, once you become an overweight teenager, there is a 70% chance that they will not be able to lose weight.
The food environment of schools plays an important role in increasing access to sugary drinks. Children spend a lot of time in school during their important periods for development. Among other things, the types of food and beverages to which children are exposed at school influence their eating patterns and food preferences.
This is a concern for South Africans as children are exposed aggressive marketing i unhealthy foods and drinks in schools. Excessive consumption of sugary drinks by students is especially worrying. An average 4th grader (10 years old) has about one to two sugary drinks a day, with each soda containing up to nine teaspoons of sugar.
It is clear that efforts need to be made to prevent obesity in schools. But what should these efforts entail? Our new research shows that voluntary actions by the industry are not part of the recipe.
The goal of our research was to see what drinks were available in schools after the Coca-Cola announcement. Our audit showed that the company’s brands remained available in most schools. Our study shows that ceding regulation to industry is risky; government regulations and legislation are needed.
Tuck shop audit
We studied the food environment of 105 public primary schools in Gauteng Province, South Africa. The schools were located in both affluent and poorer areas. This allowed us to see if there were differences in outcomes depending on the socioeconomic status of the school. Field workers visited tuck shops and other food establishments on the school premises. They talked to school staff to find out what was being sold to children through school stores or department stores.
In general, food consumed in schools can constitute up to a maximum of 20% -30% of the total daily caloric intake of the learners. This can be done through government school meal programs in the poorest areas, from school shops or home-grown apprentices ’snacks.
Our study showed that two years after the promise of Coca-Cola Beverages, there were sugary carbonated drinks in 54% of elementary school stores. These drinks were more available in paid schools (86%) than in unpaid schools (21%). When the researchers examined the availability of low-calorie alternative products, they found that none of the school’s tuck stores sold only low-calorie drinks.
Decision makers explained that schools faced challenges such as funding for general school maintenance and staff salaries. They felt they had to make a compromise between revenue generation and the health of the products they sold in tuck stores. We discovered that Coca-Cola Beverages South Africa is not the only distributor of school stores. Therefore, even when Coca-Cola Beverages South Africa would not supply sugary drinks, schools supplied their stores through general commercial wholesalers.
As for advertising, only a few schools reported that the company had done what had been promised in the commitment, to remove all brand and advertising from the schools. But that was the exception rather than the norm. Almost a third (31%) of schools had Coca-Cola branding or advertising in schools. Much of the brand is billboards with the name of the school. Respondents reported that the brand, particularly branded refrigerators, remained unchanged.
Less than half of the school decision-makers interviewed in the study were aware of the promise. This suggests that they either did not remember the letter or had not seen it. The study also revealed that there was easy access to unhealthy products outside of school facilities through informal food vendors and nearby stores.
Despite the common confidence in self-regulatory measures by commercial food entities, there is no evidence to support their effectiveness or safety, according to the policy expert. Professor Rob Moodie and colleagues.
The ban on the sale and advertising of sugary drinks is likely to have more promise than voluntary actions to improve the diet of school-aged children and contribute to efforts to prevent obesity among children. There is promising evidence from other developing countries, such as Chile, where the ban on unhealthy food and drink resulted in a substantial reduction in sales of these products in schools.
Changes must also occur in the wider school community, in accordance with our constitutional basis for the best interests of the child.
Students, school staff, parents and tuck shop owners play an important role in creating a healthier eating environment in schools. Making a change at the tuck store may seem risky, but small changes like the ban on sugary drinks are a great start. This is already happening all over the world.
Finally, it is important that these changes be communicated to the wider school community. The health benefits of the changes should be explained, highlighting the positive impact on students ’nutrition, well-being and school performance. Students should be able to question what they can buy in school stores or whether they are served for lunch. All schoolchildren in South Africa are entitled to an easy and healthy dietary option on a daily basis.
Agnes Erzse, Researcher, SAMRC / Center for Health Economics and Decision Science- PRICELESS SA, University of the Witwatersrand; Karen Hofman, Professor and Director of the Program, MRC SA Center for Health Economics and Decision Sciences – PRICELESS SA (Cost-effective priority lessons in systems that strengthen South Africa), University of the Witwatersrand, i Nicola Christofides, Associate Professor of the School of Public Health, University of the Witwatersrand