With one in four Australian children classified as overweight or obese and an Australian state limiting the amount of ham sold in schools, what’s on offer at the tuckshop is again in the spotlight.

But how much do you know about what your school canteen sells and who decides what’s on the menu?

Do school tuckshops only sell healthy food now?

Not quite, which is partly why some groups are calling for more action.

What is sold in state school tuckshops or canteens is governed, or at least guided, by policies set out by state and territory government departments.

Queensland’s is called Smart Choices and is run by the state’s education department.

In New South Wales it’s the Healthy School Canteen Strategy run by NSW Health and South Australia employs the Right Bite Food and Drink Supply Standards developed by its department for education.

Healthy foods in the green category are supposed to make up the majority of school tuckshop menus.(ABC News: Tara Cassidy)

What’s central to them all is a “traffic light” system that classifies foods and drinks into green, amber and red categories.

According to most policies, red items like pies, pizzas and pastries should only be supplied twice per school term.

Amber items like burgers, muffins and lasagne shouldn’t dominate menus, and green items like fresh fruit, vegetables and reduced fat dairy products should make up most items available.

Why are school tuckshops in the spotlight?

Debate about healthy eating at school often flares up in term 1, but this year it’s been helped along by Western Australia’s review of its traffic light system which has resulted in ham being shifted into a new red category.

South Australia’s education department last year reviewed its policy, and the Northern Territory government is in the middle of a similar review.

In Victoria, the education department sets out a list of clearly defined healthy-eating guidelines for schools to follow.

Food and drinks sold in most school tuckshops falls into one of three health categories — red, amber or green.(ABC News: Tara Cassidy)

The Queensland Association of School Tuckshops (QAST) said it’s time the Sunshine State’s policy, which was written in 2007 and updated in 2016 and 2020, was also reviewed.

“What we feel is that Queensland’s being left behind,” said QAST chief executive Deanne Wooden.

Ms Wooden said a QAST audit in 2022 examined the menus of more than 250 school tuckshops and found none were fully compliant with Queensland’s traffic light system.

“At the moment, we know that the policy is not being implemented the way it should be [and] there’s no incentive or mechanism to make sure that it is.”

Why is ham being targeted?

In short: because it’s not good to eat too much of it.

Principle nutritionist with Health and Wellbeing Queensland Matthew Dick said Western Australia’s new rules on ham at school tuckshops were in line with expert advice.

Nutritionists say ham is high in salt, fat and additives and should only be eaten occasionally.(ABC News: Mark Rigby)

“They want to limit it to two times per week, which is exactly the same message we as nutritionists are giving,” Mr Dick said.

“Don’t rely on ham all the time. It’s okay as an occasional filling in your sandwiches but relying on processed foods like ham, bacon and sausages can start to become a problem.”

Mr Dick said ham and processed meats were often high in fats, salt and additives and are considered carcinogens by the World Health Organisation.

“Long-term consumption of processed foods can contribute to cancers in people and that’s one of the real concerns with them.”

What do schools say about healthy tuckshops?

Southport State School tuckshop convenor Angelique Scarpignato said Queensland’s Smart Choices guidelines were effective but difficult to implement for some tuckshops.

“Some of them are just so time-poor, they don’t have the volunteers or the help and it is a little bit harder to cook healthier than it is to grab something from the freezer and shove it in the oven.”

Angelique Scarpignato was awarded QAST’s best tuckshop recipe in 2023 for a healthy butter chicken dish.(ABC Gold Coast: Mark Rigby)

She said some foods classified as red under Queensland’s policy were available at her tuckshop, but only once a week.

“There has to be a balance,” she said.

“Kids need a treat every now and then. They function better, they look forward to it and they appreciate it more.”

Ultimately, the decision about what’s served at tuckshops and canteens comes down to the school principal.

The president of the Queensland Association of State School Principals, Pat Murphy, said tuckshops in schools outside major centres sometimes faced further menu challenges.

“I had a good couple of years in Augathella in Western Queensland and we didn’t get fresh bread every day,” Mr Murphy said.

He said any further review of Queensland’s traffic light system needed to take that into account.

“You have to be cognisant of the issues that impact towns and smaller regional cities [and] that it’s not easy to get fresh produce.”

What happens when you take choices away?

According to Pat Murphy, kids save their lunch money, go hungry and buy things elsewhere after school.

“That’s not a good message that we want to give. We know that children eating at prescribed times is better for them,” he said.

“Principals are saying they’re far better off having the ham than holding the money and ultimately buying things like the sausage rolls and meat pies that we’re trying to eliminate.”

What’s better, pies or sausage rolls?(ABC Southern QLD: David Chen)

Nutritionist Amy Thompson agreed and said overcooking healthy eating policies in Queensland tuckshops risked sending the wrong message to children.

“To be able to look visually at foods and say, ‘that one’s a green choice, that’s one of my everyday foods, and that one’s an amber choice’, that really helps build long-term sustainable healthy eating patterns for children,” Ms Thompson said.

“We need to be mindful that the pendulum doesn’t swing too far the opposite way and we lose that opportunity.”