THE prevalence of overweight and obesity has been rising steadily over the last twenty years with rates dramatically increasing in Northern Ireland.
Given that many diseases, for example cardiovascular disease, begin early in life, childhood is a vital stage for good nutrition. Over a fifth of all children starting primary school here are classified as overweight or obese, a figure which is continually increasing.
In response to the introduction of nutritional standards, the Public Health Agency (PHA), in partnership with the North Eastern Education and Library Board (NEELB) and the Northern Health and Social Care Trust (NHSCT) developed a Schools Dietitian post which has achieved great results. The post was established in 2007 and the most recent post holder Christine Watt, worked within the NHSCT and the NEELB. The post was funded by the legacy Northern Health and Social Care Board and more recently by the Public Health Agency.
The piloted post was created to support changes to the food provided in schools and the nutritional standards for school lunches which were introduced in Northern Ireland in September 2007. This was carried out through the School Food: top marks programme which was a joint venture by the Department of Education, Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and PHA. These standards were introduced to ensure that all food and drinks provided throughout the school setting make a significant contribution to childhood and adolescent nutrition.
The Schools Dietitian has enabled local schools to address nutritional issues, by helping schools review, develop and implement whole school food policies and form School Nutrition Action Groups (SNAGs). The Schools Dietitian also provided information and interactive training sessions for pupils, staff and parents on how to make healthy food choices, a key part of the Personal Development and Mutual Understanding area of the curriculum.
The PHA, NHSCT and the NEELB recently held a joint event to celebrate the work of the Schools Dietitian. This provided an opportunity to acknowledge the learning and hard work which has been carried out in the Northern area.
Jill Curry, Dietetic Service Manager (NHSCT) said: “The event highlighted the collaborative working being carried out in the Northern Area to raise awareness of healthy eating. The Schools Dietitian has played a vital role in education and encouraging young people to develop healthy eating habits at an early age and is consistent with the Transforming Your Care ethos.”
Christine Watt, the current Schools Dietitian, said: “I was delighted by the success of this event. School children from Kilross Primary School, Tobermore and Antrim Grammar School produced wonderful poems and raps for the event which demonstrated their learning. Other schools throughout the area submitted posters for a competition, illustrating their knowledge of healthy eating”.
A new 10 year strategy has recently been launched, ‘A Fitter Future for All’, which aims to identify priorities for action to not only prevent the rise in levels of overweight and obesity in children and young people but to reduce the levels of overweight and obesity. This local project has helped shaped and uniform the way forward.
Dr Hannah Dearie, Health and Social Wellbeing Improvement Officer, PHA, said: “The Public Health Agency and the Department of Education are supporting the appointment of a new regional Food in Schools coordinator who will be responsible for a programme of work to support the food in schools policy across Northern Ireland. The role will include giving advice and support to school meals caterers and food suppliers to ensure compliance with nutritional standards for school food.”