Ruby Mizgalski, age two and her sister Ella, age six.
Ruby Mizgalski, age two and her sister Ella, age six. Photo: Katherine Griffiths

The collective joy of tens of thousands of Canberra parents sending their bored offspring back to school is tempered by one thing - the return to packing school lunches.

One child's kindergarten-to-year 12 education will entail about 2600 lunches - a hefty proportion prepared by harassed parents in the last moments of the evening before they collapse into bed or those frantic morning moments before the school bus arrives. It's no surprise many take the easy way out - shoving money into a child's backpack for a lunch order.

Fresh fruit and vegetables: the good stuff.
Fresh fruit and vegetables: the good stuff. Photo: Katherine Griffiths

But how does canteen food translate to a well-balanced diet for growing, active, learning children? Thankfully in many local schools, better than it used to.

In 2011, the federal Government, alarmed about the galloping rate of childhood obesity, got states and territories to agree to a national partnership overhauling canteen fare.

While Canberra's children are slimmer than the national average, the ACT Chief Health Officer's Report 2012 found the local childhood obesity rate is on the rise. Statistics from 2010 found 15.7 per cent of kindergarten children in the ACT were measured as overweight or obese, compared with 14.6 per cent in 2009 and 12.8 per cent in 2008. By Year 6, the figure had risen to 25 per cent.

While children presumably stack on most of their excess fat at home, there's no doubt conventional tuck-shop food has done little to ease the obesity crisis.

The issue took hold politically at the recent ACT election with Labor promising $1 million for healthier canteens.

Nutritionally bereft but hugely popular menu items such as chicken nuggets, potato gems, party pies, sausage rolls, pizzas, soft drinks, cupcakes, muffins and doughnuts have been common menu items for generations.

This is largely due to demands on school canteens to make profits for their school - or at the very least not go broke - by managing high turnovers of cheap food that is easy to store, prepare and serve.

The financial pressures on school canteens are now so acute, a ministerial taskforce was convened last year to look at new business models including purchaser-provider agreements and electronic ordering to ensure canteens survive. As it is, many schools, particularly primary, open the canteen on just one or more days.

When the ACT Government signed up to the national partnership in 2011, it contracted Nutrition Australia's ACT division, a not-for-profit organisation, to help school canteens towards a healthier menu.

For Nutrition Australia's ACT head, Lyn Brown, the task was about diplomacy as well as nutritional skills. Already stressed canteen managers didn't want "the diet police" coming down hard on them and there was also dissent from some students who didn't want their favourite snacks taken off the menu, as well as from parents who wanted their children to access "treats" at school.

Canteens were encouraged to provide their menus to be assessed against the traffic light system - green for good food, amber for food needing moderation, and red for food not recommended for canteens. Two years on, and 27 out of 117 ACT schools with canteens have had their menus assessed and overhauled. Another 44 have sought advice.

Of those submitting menus, just 30 per cent of food options were deemed green - fresh fruit and vegies, bread, low-fat milk drinks, low-fat yoghurts, low-sugar cereals and unprocessed meat.

More than 40 per cent were amber - full-fat milk, fruit leathers, fruit ice blocks, processed meat, muesli bars, flavoured popcorn and the like, while nearly 30 per cent were red - cordial, soft drink, cakes, slices, fruit-flavoured food, deep-fried food and confectionary.

That means an average of seven out of 10 items on canteen menus should be limited or removed completely.

Two local schools stand out as nutritionally sound beacons - Florey and Giralang primary schools, which are leading the way and will shortly receive recognition as the first ACT schools to remove all red foods from their canteens.

Brown and her small team ideally want to phase out red foods in every school - but the work in reforming canteen culture is difficult and laborious. Which is ironic, given that now more than ever, school classrooms preach the virtues of sound nutrition.

Brown admits there has been a fundamental disconnect between health messages children hear during lessons and the nutritional content at recess and lunch.

"We continue to send mixed messages to children, who most of all need consistency," she says.

Even those schools that have kitchen gardens and focus on nutrition in the curriculum may be undoing some of their good work once the tuck-shop shutter opens for business, as canteens are run as separate, profitable entities.

Which leaves many parents between a rock and a hard place. They would rather their kids take a healthy lunch from home than give way to the temptations of junk food at school, so they enter the year heavy with the responsibility of thinking up, shopping for, and preparing the majority of those 2600 school lunches.

But even the best of intentions can give way to boredom, frustration and lack of planning by the second week of term.

Nutrition Australia's top 10 grab-and-go lunchbox items

1. Sandwiches or wraps

2. Fresh fruit

3. Vegetable sticks

4. Long-life reduced fat plain or flavoured milk

5. Reduced-fat yoghurt

6. Wholegrain crackers

7. Cheese sticks

8. Pureed fruit tubs or pouches

9. Raisin bread

10. Plain air-popped popcorn