PACKED within the 135,000 school lunchboxes in the Hunter New England region every day are more than 270,000 junk food items.
But a University of Newcastle research program, led by Associate Professor Luke Wolfenden, is encouraging Hunter parents to pack healthier lunches and snacks via an app already widely used by schools across the country.
The SWAP-It program was successfully piloted in 12 Hunter schools last year, and it has already helped to improve the eating habits of the children involved.
“We had some really encouraging results,” Associate Professor Wolfenden said.
“We saw an improvement in the foods that were being packed, and they were in line with the recommendations we were making.
“Good nutrition in childhood improves concentration, but it will also protect them against future chronic diseases. Reducing unhealthy weight gain is also a benefit, but it’s really about establishing healthy eating habits early which has a variety of positive outcomes.”
The program will now be rolled out to 150 schools in the region during the next three years thanks to a $500,000 grant from nib Foundation.
“It is primarily based on a series of text messages and push alerts that go to parents weekly for a term, and they provide some practical advice and suggestions about the swaps that can be made,” Associate Professor Wolfenden said. “We also work with the schools themselves in developing nutrition guidelines as well so they can teach children about it at the same time.”
Simple swaps were encouraged.
“Pikelets instead of cakes or sweet biscuits, or packaged popcorn rather than packaged chips. Water instead of fruit juice,” Associate Professor Wolfenden said.
“We noticed the nutritional quality of the foods, as we assessed it, were improving throughout the program.
“That was actually really noticeable, just by going out and seeing their lunchboxes.
“We have embedded it into the Skoolbag app that is already used by schools to communicate with parents.
“It’s an app used across our region, but it also has a national footprint. Ultimately, we’re hoping this goes across Australia.”
Valerie Gent said she had found the program helpful. Her son had become much more interested in what was in his lunchbox each day.
“As a parent, I pack two lunch boxes and I work. So as the term progresses you get into the habit of just throwing in anything without thinking about it,” she said.
“But rather than having to pack the perfect bento lunch box, it just gets you to do one swap, and that’s very achievable. There is no guilt on the parent, it’s just one easy swap, and that’s very doable.”
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