Is banning packed lunches in schools the answer?

19/07/2013 - 09:34
Children’s diets are once again hitting the headlines, this time with the emphasis being on encouraging a “ban” on packed lunches in schools, according to the school food plan published recently by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent.

Amy Teichman, quality and nutrition manager at Alliance in Partnership, award-winning education caterers, commented on the report.

Whilst the report appears somewhat harsh, it is fair to say that some packed lunches brought into school by pupils leave much to be desired in terms of nutritional goodness – with lunch-box contents being high in processed foods with a high fat and sugar content.    

It’s a fact of life that more parents are now working full-time, and time is a challenge for busy modern families.  It is also widely accepted that children are leading a much more sedentary lifestyle than they have ever done before – all of which has led to an increase in childhood obesity and a rise in Type 2 Diabetes in children.  

As school caterers, Alliance in Partnership works incredibly hard to meet the Government Guidelines for School Meals, which consist of 14 nutritional standards, and 11 essential food groups.  All of our menus are planned, in consultation with a team of nutritionists, and made with fresh ingredients, from scratch, to give optimal nutritional value at mealtimes.  We also hold the Bronze, Silver and Gold Food For Life Awards, ensuring we provide traceability. Our meat comes from Red Tractor producers and our fish from MSC approved suppliers.

The Dimbleby/Vincent report calls for free school meals for all children of primary school age, although at the time of writing, the Government has not agreed to this recommendation.  

With the current economic climate, packed lunches are perceived as the cheaper solution to school meals, particularly if a family has more than one child in school.  The criteria for free school meals can be restrictive – perhaps the threshold could be changed to enable more students to qualify for free school meals?

School meals also encourage sociability amongst children.  With the modern hectic lifestyle, mealtimes within the home environment can be taken at different times, often not sitting round a table as a family on a regular basis.  A daily two course hot school meal would ensure that students were receiving a healthy balanced meal, as well as developing their social skills with their peers in the school dining room. 

With peer pressure, and the instinct of healthy competition, children are more likely to try new foodstuffs with their friends than in the family home when introduced by a parent. Academic grades and achievements are also known to be higher in pupils who follow a healthy diet, exercise and regular sleep.  

From an economic standpoint, a higher take-up of school meals would naturally lead to an increase in ingredients required, which would give the caterer greater buying power.  As the Food For Life scheme becomes more widespread, there would be more business for British farmers as schools and catering contractors have to procure locally sourced British food.  

It is also believed that Ofsted will be taking the school dining hall experience into account when carrying out school inspections.

One of the most interesting points of note in the Dimbleby/Vincent report is the recognition of the need to teach children how to cook again.  

Until 1989, when the new National Curriculum was introduced, Home Economics (or Domestic Science) was a core subject for all secondary school age pupils.  Teaching the students how to cook as well as giving them an understanding of diet, nutrition and the importance of a healthy, balanced diet was taught alongside English, Maths, History, Geography etc. 

Since Home Economics took a back-seat under the National Curriculum in 1989 more and more parents unaware of the basics of healthy nutrition and cooking, instead relying on ready-meals and the increasing availability of takeaway and convenience foods.

As a result of the Dimbleby/Vincent report, it is now proposed that cookery classes will become mandatory in schools for all pupils up to the age of 14 (KS3), from September 2014.   This will mean huge changes within schools as only 25% of primary schools have teaching kitchens, and could also highlight the shortage of teaching staff trained in cookery and nutrition.

One proposed solution, and one which AiP would support, is to include the school catering teams in educating the pupils.  School caterers know the benefits of balanced nutrition and how to cook fresh, wholesome dishes from scratch. 

Also, with liaison from the likes of the School Food Trust and Food For Life Partnership, lessons could be structured around the origins of food and where the food on our plate comes from – whether animal, vegetable or mineral.  Schools would also need to look at funding options – in theory, the school caterers could buy the raw ingredients in on behalf of the school, with parents being asked to pay “cost price” for the raw ingredients.  

As an award-winning school catering company, we are looking forward to seeing what changes the Dimbleby/Vincent report bring about.  The Alliance in Partnership ethos is simple, to provide quality, freshly cooked food, attractively presented to a high standard and at an affordable price.

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