The slow demise of the school canteen run by volunteers on a modest-profit-making basis and dispensing healthy, nutritious food is a sad development. As this newspaper detailed on Wednesday, at least 19 parent-run canteens have closed in recent years, while 16 other canteen operations have been outsourced to commercial food suppliers. Of the remaining 51 canteens still operating, a number open their doors for just one day a week. According to the the ACT School Canteen Association, which itself is being wound up after operating for 25 years, financial pressures, a lack of volunteers and a blizzard of government policies and regulations are the main factors. And with only a small percentage of school canteens on a sound financial or organisational footing, it believes many more could fold.

Running a canteen is not the relatively straightforward business it was in the '70s, '80 and '90s when a pie and sauce (with a vanilla slice or soft drink on the side), was the order of the day for most children buying their lunches. The increasing pace and complexity of daily life has seen to that, as has a growing awareness of the importance of proper nutrition. Heightened concerns about allergies and food safety more generally have not helped matters, either. But that parents are more time-poor than ever is undoubtedly the greatest impediment to the continued existence of volunteer-run canteens.

Many of those parents are likely to shrug their shoulders and put the disappearance down to progress. Such an eventuality will have economic and social ramifications. Schools will no longer benefit from the modest profits canteens will generate, and as the association has pointed out, outsourcing canteens to commercial operators could well lead to profits being placed ahead of nutrition. Volunteer-run canteens also perform a useful social function, providing meals to children from deprived backgrounds and allowing others to discover the virtues of volunteering and co-operation. Without them, schools will be far more sterile environments.

The association, which has been warning of this issue for many years, believes the government could alleviate matters by agreeing to pay canteen managers and incorporating their positions into school organisations. Online technology might also be employed to make volunteer canteens run more smoothly and efficiently.

Whatever the solution, it should not be left to schools to identify. ACT Labor has pledged just $1 million over four years to bolster canteens and improve nutritional outcomes, although little of that money has sighted so far. This week revelation's might prompt it to move, but it is clear if volunteer canteens are to survive, parents will have to be prepared to push government for a solution.

AHA turns wowser


otel licensees and liquor-store owners are forbidden by law from selling alcohol to minors or intoxicated adults, with stiff penalties for those who fall foul of the regulations. These regulations also oblige licensees to train their staff in the responsible service of alcohol (RSA). So it is understandable the Australian Hotels Association, which represents publicans and licensees, might take umbrage at community groups selling alcohol without the need for staff to be trained and certified. But in suggesting events such as the National Multicultural Festival (where community and not-for-profit groups abound), should be alcohol-free because organisers cannot satisfy the same requirements as all licensees, the ACT branch of the AHA might stand accused in some quarters of narrow-mindedness.

Since the festival is an annual event lasting a single weekend, it would be impractical to subject stallholders to the same regulations applying to hotels and off-licences. Recognising this, organisers work closely with police and other authorities to ensure the sale and consumption of alcohol is done responsibly. That there were no reported incidents of drunkenness or bad behaviour at the weekend indicates this approach is largely effective.

An unequal regulatory approach to the sale of alcohol is in no one's interests, but to suggest the lack of strict RSA standards at the festival is a case of "double standards'' - and likely to endanger the public - looks like overkill. It is disappointing the AHA could not acknowledge the positive aspects of such a vibrant and popular community festival.