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As a former student of Mona Heights Primary School, and now UNICEF’s Nutrition Consultant, from the moment I stepped back onto the playground, I was overjoyed to see the great work being done to provide a school environment that demonstrates positive healthy nutrition and physical activity. From growing their own food, to daily exercise, to even creating a dedicated space where children can unwind from stress, Mona Heights is a holistic school environment where children can grow, thrive, and learn.
At UNICEF, our Nutrition Programme is designed to support children’s right to healthy and nutritious food and after hearing about their work we had to visit. The school staff, from the cooks in the kitchen, the security guard/groundskeeper, to the teachers and the principal are all committed and believe in the benefits of activities that promote child health.
Teachers mentioned they had to learn new dances so they can be incorporated during physical activity breaks to connect with the children. And the cook in the kitchen was adamant that a wide variety of vegetables had to be included in the meals for all children, whether they were on the school meals programme or not.
Children modelling healthy living habits
Modelling healthy habits has become a part of the children’s behaviour. This shift has also resulted in a healthy school culture. I saw happy, healthy students now driving the activities who were excited to be involved, enthused to line up to buy fruits as snacks or for smoothies, skilled in growing their own foods and who understood why this was improving their health. Good nutrition habits and skills will serve them for a lifetime.
Three decades ago I was a student at this school. Space and resources were limited, but the school administration was always committed to the students. There was a school meals programme which helped many students, including myself, to stay in school and we had a large field to play but no structured physical activity, no smoothie bar, no school garden nor other nutrition-related activities.
The current challenges of unhealthy eating patterns and increasing overweight/obesity in children were not as chronic as they are now when I attended the school. Comparing then and now, the new activities implemented by the school are very timely and responsive to the more current nutritional challenges of children in Jamaica and places more of a focus on nutrition and physical activity as a way to support their overall wellbeing and education.
Commitment from school leadership
Replicating what Mona Heights is doing at other schools will first take commitment among school leadership and staff to invest in school nutrition and health as a critical step to improving the well-being and learning of our children. We all know that schools must balance many responsibilities daily. Therefore, they will want to carefully consider their capacity and resources and commit to implementing incremental changes, using community resources and partnerships, including vendors who sell food and drink items outside the school gates.
When the new school term begins, with Jamaican students returning for their first full face-to-face learning since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, their health and safety must be a priority for all – parents, caregivers, teachers, school administrators, government, and the private sector.
In Jamaica today, the need to protect, promote and support childhood nutrition has never been greater. Low levels of physical activity and consumption of large amounts of ultra-processed foods high in sugar, unhealthy fats and salt, along with limited fruits and vegetables, have been driving up overweight/obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in children and adolescents.
Fighting obesity; recovering post-pandemic
This represents serious threats to their long and short-term health, wellness and development – increasing their risk of NCDs like high blood pressure and type II diabetes; mental health impacts such as depression, social isolation, low self-esteem, and poor educational attainment; and causing significant emotional and financial cost to families. As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, we saw a 57 per cent increase in children overeating. There was also an increased vulnerability among adults and children with obesity and NCDs to the negative and sometimes fatal effects of the disease.
In the Jamaican school food environment, there is high exposure to and aggressive marketing of unhealthy foods preventing children from making good food decisions and learning healthy food habits. More than 75 per cent of Jamaican students get their lunches from school canteens or tuck shops leaving our children with limited healthy choices in many instances.
Children need a safe school environment that protects all areas of their health including nutrition. This should motivate us to use the return to school as an opportunity to work together to support or implement the programmes, like promoting the School Nutrition Policy and initiatives such as those implemented by Mona Heights Primary that will give children the nutrition, health and protection that are so critical to their learning, health and development.
This will go a long way to help many Jamaican students now and for many generations to come. I hope that by visiting Mona Heights and other pioneering schools, or even just watching the UNICEF video, that other schools can also follow their example.
What’s UNICEF doing?
Health and nutrition are a foundation for education. UNICEF’s Nutrition Programme aims to protect the right of infants, children and young people to safe, nutritious food and recognizes that healthy, well-nourished children and adolescents learn better.
Jamaica urgently needs a National School Nutrition Policy to combat the rise of NCDs and obesity. The policy will also support good health and educational outcomes by creating a school environment that protects children’s right to good nutrition and health, provides healthier options, demonstrates healthy and positive food and physical activity behaviours and ensures equal access to healthy food for all students.
UNICEF is supporting the work of both the Ministry of Health and Wellness as well as the Ministry of Education and Youth to advance, finalize and implement the Policy, supporting Standards in schools; awareness building, amplifying youth voices on the issue and support for the Jamaica Moves in Schools Initiative.