Do we really know what’s in school dinners?
24th September 2019
It’s been 14 years since Jamie Oliver started his original ‘school dinners’ campaign to improve food quality in schools. Standards are better than they were pre-2005, but as Jamie’s Bite Back 2030 campaign acknowledges, things still aren’t good enough. Nutritional information about food that is served in school should be available to all pupils, staff and parents.Nutritional information about food that is served in school should be available to all pupils, staff and parents. Click To Tweet
In this blog, I explain why school communities need to know what they are eating and I set out a plan for introducing new requirements to provide nutritional information. There are two main reasons why I think these requirements are needed:
1. Supporting young people and teachers with chronic diseases and allergies
Young people and adults with certain chronic diseases and allergies need to know which nutrients are in the food they consume. If school dinners and break-time snacks are not clearly labelled with nutritional information, it can be difficult for some young people and staff to protect their health.
I know this from personal experience. As a Type 1 diabetic, the lack of nutritional information for school foods caused me problems when I was a pupil, a teacher and even when I visited schools as a DfE Civil Servant. I need to inject insulin based on the amount of carbohydrate that I am going to eat. If I do not know how much carbohydrate is in my food, I have to guess. Guessing means I might take too much, or too little insulin which then sends my blood glucose haywire. You can therefore imagine how difficult having lunch at the school canteen was when I had no idea what I was eating!
It’s not only Type 1 diabetics who need access to nutritional information. It is estimated that up to 1 in 100 people have coeliac disease and 5%-8% of children living in the UK have a food allergy. Young people and adults with autoimmune disorders like coeliac disease need to know whether food contains gluten and nutritional information can help those with allergies avoid emergency situations.
Whilst there are legal stipulations for food providers to display information about certain allergens, detailed nutritional information on all foods in school would make things easier for young people with health conditions related to a wider range of food types than the official list. Therefore, providing nutritional information for meals and snacks served in schools could help many in our school communities.Providing nutritional information for meals and snacks served in schools could help many in our school communities. Click To Tweet
2. Helping all young people to make informed choices
Obesity levels amongst children and young people are currently hugely problematic and young people are eating too much high-fat and high-sugar foods. NHS Digital estimate that:
- 1 in 10 children are obese in reception and 1 in 5 children are obese in Year 6.
- On average, children and young people consume more free sugars than the recommended 5% of total calorie intake.
- On average, children and young people consume more saturated fat that the recommended 11% of total calorie intake.
The NHS and the health community continuously remind us that we need to eat a balanced diet and that this is especially important for young people whose bodies are going through physical changes.
Providing nutritional information about school food would help young people to become familiar with nutrition and this might equip more young people with the knowledge they need to make healthy eating choices. This could contribute to a reduction in young people’s consumption of foods high in saturated fat and free sugars and help tackle obesity.Providing nutritional information about school food would help young people to become familiar with nutrition and this might equip more young people with the knowledge they need to make healthy eating choices. Click To Tweet
I am not suggesting that providing nutritional information about the food served in schools will solve the problem of spiralling obesity, but if we do not provide young people with the information that they need to make healthy choices about food, we are doing them a disservice.
A workable plan
Although there will be some cost in ensuring that nutritional information for school foods are accessible, funding need not come directly out of school budgets or even the public purse.Although there will be some cost in ensuring that nutritional information for school foods are accessible, funding need not come directly out of school budgets or even the public purse. Click To Tweet
The Department for Education could amend school food standards guidance and regulations and legislate for all food/catering companies to provide a full breakdown of nutritional information, as well as colour-coded key statistics, for any foods that they sell to schools. The DfE could also adapt the regulations so that schools are legally obliged to make nutritional information accessible to pupils, staff and parents. In practice, it would work something like this:
- The companies would print the nutritional information on food packaging and colour code key nutrition labels. Where schools sell food in packaging, pupils/staff would be able to read the information directly.
- Companies would also provide schools with separate nutritional breakdowns regarding meals that they supply and schools would display this at the canteen. This means that nutritional information would be available even when meals are served without packaging.
There is a risk that catering companies could pass the cost of printing nutritional information onto schools by increasing their food prices. However, many food companies who supply supermarkets already have to provide nutritional information so this requirement merely seems to provide for basic consistency.
Some people might argue that printing nutritional information would be pointless because pupils would ignore it or not understand it. However, having access to nutritional information is an important part of learning about food. Being able to read how much fibre and protein there is in a school lunch would help pupils to become familiar with nutrition and would complement teaching about healthy diets.
Food is important. Whilst contemporary school dinners are generally higher quality than those served in the 90s and early 00s, we need to give school communities the information they need to stay healthy.Food is important. Whilst contemporary school dinners are generally higher quality than those served in the 90s and early 00s, we need to give school communities the information they need to stay healthy. Click To Tweet