Students at Public School 124 in Melilla lining up to buy snacks during recess.
Credit: Victoria Rodríguez/IPS
Uruguayan Schools Slowly Say Goodbye to Junk Food
By Inés Acosta
One quarter of children in Uruguay are overweight or
MONTEVIDEO, Oct 8 (Tierramérica).- Uruguayan schoolchildren are learning that
cookies, candy, potato chips and soft drinks are
bad for their health.
Some schools have taken the initiative and banned
junk food from school snacks.
The authorities announced a ban on unhealthy food
in schools but have not yet enforced it.
In the meantime, a bill presented by the
opposition to prohibit the promotion and
advertising of junk food on school premises was
passed by the Chamber of Deputies on Sep. 11 and
is expected to be approved by the Senate as well.
“We can’t bring chips and those kinds of things to
school anymore, and that’s really good, because
we’re children and if we eat a lot of junk food we
could get a disease now or when we’re older,”
declared Luciano, a student at Public School 124
in Rincón de Melilla, an area of vineyards and
orchards in northwest Montevideo.
“Sometimes I get a craving for that kind of stuff,
and sometimes on Sunday we go to the store and buy
chips,” he confessed.
At Luciano’s school there is no privately run
canteen, which means children bring their snacks
from home. The school actively promotes healthy
eating by prohibiting junk food, a ban that has
been in effect since last year, principal Teresa
Conti told Tierramérica.
“At first we ran into some resistance from the
parents, but eventually they and the children got
used to not sending packaged treats. They had to
accept it, because it’s now a school rule,” she
“It’s much easier for parents to buy a bag of
potato chips or a package of cookies, but this
habit has been changed, especially since the
teachers have been teaching about and promoting
healthier ways of eating,” she added.
For the last several months, students in the
fourth, fifth and sixth grade have been bringing
in food made at home and selling it to raise funds
for end-of-year trips.
Luisa, a sixth-grade student, explained that the
homemade snacks they offer for sale include meat
pies, cheese bread and loaf cakes, as well as
fruit. “Everything gets sold,” she said while
serving food at the canteen, where there was
almost nothing left to buy.
In February, Óscar Gómez, who was then the
director of the Board of Early and Primary
Education and is now an undersecretary at the
Ministry of Education and Culture, announced that
the sale of unhealthy food would be banned in
“The idea was that we shouldn’t act as agents for
the promotion of bad habits,” Gómez told
Tierramérica. The initiative, which was supposed
to go into effect mid-year, was being pushed
forward in line with a bill in the works since
2011, he added.
“But it was interrupted, because I moved to the
ministry,” said Gómez. For now, the public
education authorities are offering awareness
raising and training sessions for school staff and
supporting initiatives undertaken by individual
schools to promote healthy eating, he said.
The head of the School Food Program at the Board
of Early and Primary Education, Graciela Moizo,
told Tierramérica that efforts are being focused
on “an educational approach.”
“Education needs to be adapted to the social
reality, which is the fact that children are being
constantly bombarded with advertising for certain
products,” she said. “Without a strong educational
counter-response that helps children understand
the things that are harmful, it would be very
difficult to achieve healthy eating habits,” she
Moizo said that visits to primary schools
demonstrate that there is very little unhealthy
There are normally no canteens in public schools,
said Moizo. The few that do exist “are organized
by the children or school cooperatives to raise
funds for a specific purpose, and usually sell
“The problem with snacks is the food sold outside
the schools,” she said.
In the meantime, through the School Food Program,
the government provides food assistance to 67
percent of public school students, ranging from a
lunch, breakfast or snack to four daily meals.
Of the 248, 590 students served daily, around
24,000 receive food purchased from outsourced
companies. The rest are served food prepared in
the kitchens of traditional school cafeterias,
explained nutritionist Caren Zelmonovich.
According to Gómez, the vast majority of private
schools have privately operated canteens. “This is
where we see the highest rates of consumption of
junk food, because it is also where there is
greater buying power,” he commented.
Julieta, a student at the Santa Elena Institute of
Education, a private Catholic school in Ciudad de
la Costa, which borders on Montevideo to the east,
told Tierramérica that healthy eating is discussed
in her class.
"We interviewed some of the kids at the school,
and most of them said they ate packaged food, but
also some healthy food, and that they mostly drank
water. A lot of the food in the canteen is healthy
and homemade,” she said.
It is better not to eat unhealthy things at
school, she admitted, but “every now and then you
might get a craving for junk food, because it’s
yummy… at least once a week.”
If Uruguay adopts a law, the rules and incentives
would be the same for everyone.
The proposed Law on Healthy Eating in Educational
Centers is aimed at protecting the health of
children and adolescents in both public and
private schools, but without prohibiting the sale
of any products.
According to figures gathered by the sponsor of
the bill, Javier García, a doctor and a member of
the Chamber of Deputies from the opposition
National Party, “70 percent of deaths in Uruguay
are the result of chronic non-communicable
diseases… basically cardiovascular and
cerebrovascular diseases and cancer,” in which
unhealthy habits are a major factor.
One quarter of children in Uruguay are overweight
García told Tierramérica that the bill “prohibits
the promotion or advertising of harmful foods in
school canteens,” but does not ban their sale.
“I opted for this educational route because,
otherwise, the discussion was going to be much
longer,” he said. In his opinion, the educational
community will become involved and eventually “the
sales margin of these projects will become smaller
and smaller until they are no longer sold.”
The proposed law tasks the Ministry of Public
Health with providing information to be
disseminated in the educational community,
including a list of unhealthy foods, such as those
with high fat, sugar and salt contents.
The bill is expected to be passed by the Senate
during the current session and to enter into
effect in March 2013, when the new school year