As our children return to school following the summer holidays, I am extremely pleased to be part of a campaign in progress by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Barbados to promote healthy lifestyles among our school children.
The Childhood Obesity Prevention Campaign, of which several committed Barbadians are Champions, aims at sensitizing the public to the serious health challenges faced by an increasing number of our nation’s youth who are classified as overweight.
The Campaign also has as its goal to effect policy changes restricting the sale and promotion of unhealthy food and beverages in our schools. In this regard, from this new school term, six schools deemed as ‘model schools’ have been identified to serve as examples of what can be achieved at this level in ensuring our children and young adults are exposed to healthy alternatives; basically taking schools from a point of not having those healthy alternatives to creating an enabling environment and culture that promotes healthy choices.
These six schools, a mix of primary and secondary, public and private, will inculcate the values and actions expected in the ‘model’ schools initiative and will be assessed over time to ascertain the success of the program.
The Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Facebook page makes the point: “As we start our Model School program in September 2019 we all know intuitively that better health means better education, but we do not always appreciate that schools are where early health behaviours are shaped.”
It is recognizing the very important role our school environment plays in nurturing the hearts and minds of our young ones that the Foundation is making every effort to bring health and proper nutrition directly to them in the place they spend a huge amount of time while they are away from home.
The National Accord of June 13th, 2018 reinforces what is needed: “In consequence, as a people, we embrace a new family, school and national tradition, thus saving our children’s future, generations of productivity and the sustainability of our Nation Barbados!”
The Jamaican Government, back in 2018, took a firm and decisive stance on the sale of sugary sweetened beverages in the country’s schools. Jamaica’s Minister of Health announced the measures and pointed to the staggering statistics of obesity among the nation’s youth. As reported, he said: “Approximately 70 per cent of Jamaican children consumes one or more sugar-sweetened beverages per day. The prevalence of obesity in adolescents 13 to 15 years increased by 68 per cent and doubled in boys over the past seven years…”
The ban was to come into effect on January 2019 and was part of a greater campaign to look at other non-healthy choices that were prevalent on the market. “The health minister noted that there was evidence that excessive consumption of drinks with added sugar helped to generate non-communicable diseases. He argued that Jamaicans should be worried about the health of teenagers based on recent statistics.”
He further stated that “The proposed ban on sugary drinks also applies to public healthcare institutions, and the Government needs to lead by example. The drinking ban is nested in the Government’s strategy to overhaul nutrition in schools, and… a nutrition policy was being formalized and would govern what students consumed.”
“The school standards will focus not just on sugar, but on reducing the intake of saturated fats, cholesterol, sodium and sugar and increasing vegetable and fruit consumption.”
This is the thrust which the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Barbados is aiming at in Barbados. The model schools will seek to ban the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages at their premises, have healthy alternatives, promote vigorously the drinking of water, create exercise programs and other keep-fit and health initiatives. Additionally, the schools are being challenged to have gardens to grow vegetables and fruits which the students themselves can use.
I was pleased to learn that some schools in Barbados have already started down that path and have been on it for a few years. Gordon Walters Primary School, which I wrote about some months ago, is one of those schools and certainly a model in its own right. The Foundation has identified this school as a definite trail-blazer in this regard.
If we can capture the young ones then hopefully, they can become the agents of change for a healthier living so badly needed in our wider society. It is hoped they can take home the message that parents and families should choose to eat wisely, exercise more and generally have more care and concern for their well-being.
Habits are hard to throw off and eating habits, especially for those sugary, carbohydrates-filled goodies, are even harder to reduce or let go of completely. But for our future survival or even to safeguard against NCDs we must look seriously at what we consume. If we can replace soft drinks with water or natural juices, then we reduce the habit-forming taste of sugar. It is proven to be addictive. I love a ‘soft drink’ and it is hard to refuse one but we must. The reality as pointed forcefully by the Programme Manager of the Childhood Obesity Prevention Programme, Francine Charles, is that there is absolutely no nutritional value in a soft drink. Soda should not be a daily choice of drink.
If this mindset can be changed among our nation’s youth then we can start to bring about the steps needed in the prevention of NCDs. It will take time and tremendous effort, but I am confident that we can do it. I am encouraged by the six schools that have signed on. They have made a commitment to their charge, students, teachers, and parents, to make their respective schools a model of healthy living experiences. They are saying when you come to this school, your education is important but your health is also as important – a sound mind in a sound body. The two must work together in harmony.
The Jamaican Government found it necessary to implement these strategies by legislation. Perhaps this may very well be the way it will have to be done in Barbados but if we can do this of our own accord, then that is even better.
The strategy is clear and evidence-based. It is not a willy-nilly, shoot in the dark initiative. It has clear goals and actions. I encourage every Barbadian to get on board and support the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Barbados campaign to bring an end to childhood obesity and promote a culture of healthy living.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace; Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association; Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI and a Childhood Obesity Prevention Champion. Email: [email protected])