From the archive.............Free school meals

Back in 2014 (yes that long ago!) I wrote about the introduction of free school meals for 5-7 year olds. Four years on I thought I'd dig it out so here you are...........

For me it’s been great to see so many success stories flooding into the media over the last 3 weeks over the UIFSM’s (Universal Infant Free School Meals) only to be closely followed by as many reports on their failings. I do tend to wear rosy coloured spectacles but I strongly believe the UIFSM can offer huge health benefits for children age 5-7 in England IF they are done well.

For reference, here is the advice from the Government that will come into force from 1st January 2015.

Helping low-income families

One of the key benefits of the revised standards is that UIFSM’s can help minimise the gap between low and high income families. There will be no comparison or competition of lunch box contents; they all get the same. This is about equity; we can’t provide for some and not others, even if you think the higher income families can afford to buy their children lunches. The School Food Plan stated 57% of children were not eating school lunches at all. Some grazing on snacks for most of the day whilst others instead go off-site to buy their lunch. UIFSM’s help ensure every child gets a healthy meal.

Many families simply can’t afford to provide their children with lunch. 3,800,000 children are growing up in severe income poverty. We know that free school meals on the old scheme were not necessarily taken up as ‘vulnerable’ children were easily identified and often the subject of bullying. We also know that children in low-income groups tend to eat fewer portions of fruit and vegetables, and have higher sugar intakes and lower fibre intakes than the population as a whole (Food Standards Agency, 2007).  A free school meal may be the only decent meal a child receives during the day. There is also funding for schools with over 35% of pupils eligible for free school meals to receive support to set up a breakfast club  – see the Magic Breakfast website.

Better than lunch boxes

Many parents still mistakenly imagine that a packed lunch is the healthiest option. I read news reports that parents were still sending their kids in with a packed lunch, despite them being provided with a free lunch at school. In fact, it is far easier to get the necessary nutrients into a cooked meal than a cold meal.   

study commissioned by the Foods Standards Agency in 2010 found  only 1% of packed lunches met the nutritional standards that currently apply to school food.  Wow! A healthy packed lunch policy is voluntary in schools so many parents may be ignorant of what they should be putting in their child’s box.  82% of the lunch boxes in the study contained foods high in saturated fat, salt and sugar, with items chosen by parents including crisps, sweets, biscuits and sweetened drinks. Only 1 in 5 packed lunches contained any vegetables or salad and about half included 1 item of fruit.

Better attainment

If children are to play, learn, develop, run around and generally get everything from life, they need to fuel their body with healthy foods. If children are missing meals or eating the wrong foods, they are likely to suffer from tiredness, poor attention, impatience, irritability and poor attainment in school. Of course, if children are not getting the right nutrition they need, they may be more susceptible to illness. This may result in a higher absenteeism rate, which can also have a negative  effect on attainment.

Where did this idea of UIFSM’s come from?

School food standards were introduced back in 2007 to help ensure children ate healthy and nutritious food at school.  In July last year, an independent review was completed by the School Food Plan who then made a number of key recommendations for school meals (including free meals) to the Department of Education. Since then, the Government launched the revised school food standards that are meant to be easier to understand.

The main difference is that these new standards for UIFSM’s are food-based only, (not nutrition based as school meals are for other age groups) which primarily means schools (and their caterers) will no longer have to analyse the food they offer for its nutritional content. The Children’s Food Trust provides a great summary of what is in each of the 6 food groups here.  The School Food Plan (SFP) has apparently clarified the old standards to develop realistic guidelines for primary schools. Ultimately they aim to provide variety and help children develop healthier eating habits; correct the problems that exist in their diet and improve educational achievement and ensure all children have a decent cooked meal. There is information on portion sizes with a whole host of menu plans and recipes. There are check lists and links to any other information that might be useful, what could possible go wrong?!

What’s wrong with children’s diets?

I have written a piece in The Conversation that went out yesterday . Basically, my article outlines what children (aged 5-7) need to eat. Considering the latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS, 2014) results, these new standards are very welcome in my mind. The NDNS revealed children are consuming too much saturated fat, salt and sugar with  intakes of fruit and vegetables, fibre and oily fish all below recommendations.

Albeit not necessarily at the same time, children are generally eating the same sort of food as their parents – as a population, we rely heavily on convenience and so the snack and ready meal markets (including those aimed at children) are booming as a result.  At least school meals can help by limiting processed food. In 2010, Datamonitor (an independent research company) reported British children spent an average £372 on sweets and chocolates every year, equivalent to about 850 Mars bars!

I am not saying never ever give a child junk but foods like chicken nuggets, cheap burgers, sausages and cake should still be occasional. I am uncomfortable with them being on a school menu as they may well be getting more than their fair share at home. 

I imagine most parents will acknowledge home cooking and what I call 'real food' is generally healthier. BUT there will be concerns about the cost of 'healthy food' and time available to cook. Cooking skills have certainly deteriorated since the boom of on the go eating. These are our biggest barriers to healthy eating right now in my opinion, so what can we do to change our habits?



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