Packed lunch alert

01/11/2011 - 00:00
School meals in England recently received support from an unexpected quarter – a World Cancer Research Fund report that praises improved nutritional standards but warns that packed lunches are failing to protect children’s health. Alan Sutton reports

The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) believes that 40% of primary school children’s lunchboxes do not contain any fruit or vegetables, compared to 10% of school meals.

“This is a missed opportunity for children’s health,” says Kate Mendoza, head of education at WCRF, adding that packed lunches are not sufficiently healthy.

She wants similar changes to be made to packed lunches as those encouraged by TV chef Jamie Oliver for school meals.

“There is no doubt Jamie Oliver helped achieve great things for the food served in school canteens. But as the nutritional content of school canteen meals has improved, the healthiness of the content of lunchboxes has been left behind.

“It is disappointing that children are going to school with lunchboxes that are not playing their part in helping to encourage the kind of healthy diet that is so important for their future.

“This is why we want to get across the message to parents that including a piece of fruit or using a portion of salad as a filling for a sandwich are positive things they can do for their children’s health.
“It can sometimes be difficult for parents to control what their children eat, particularly if they are passing shops on the way home from school or visiting their friends.

“But parents can influence what is in their packed lunches and the fact that not all of them are doing so is a missed opportunity.

“We know from a recent Ofsted report that parents are tired of being told what not to put in lunchboxes. They want some advice about what is healthy rather than what’s not healthy.

“There is also anecdotal evidence that some schools are reluctant to advise parents on packed lunches because they fear being considered patronising or that an unsophisticated approach would cause a reaction against their advice.”

While that was true not so long ago it’s no longer the case, says Elaine Fairclough, head teacher at Thomas Whitehead Church of England Lower School, in Central Bedfordshire.

“In the past parents have kicked off about schools telling them what to feed their children,” she says, “but healthy eating in schools has had such a high profile since the Jamie Oliver programmes that they have become more accepting.

“Parents do need some guidance about what makes a healthy lunchbox and we have encouraged the children by getting them to do a survey of the lunch boxes in the classroom to see what is in them and find the good examples.”

She is, however, realistic about the content.

“I want them to eat something,” she says. “I wouldn’t be happy if they had three chocolate bars and a bag of crisps as I found in a lunch box at a previous school, but I’m not saying they cannot have a
piece of cake.

“Before I came it wasn’t allowed in packed lunches but it was served to the children taking school meals.”

“I go along with the cancer charity findings about lack of fruit but our children do get it in their breaks. We are part of a fresh fruit and vegetable scheme and it is provided to them each day free of charge.

We have gained Healthy School Status again this year (National Healthy School Status is a Department of Health initiative).”

Mrs Fairclough is new to Thomas Whitehead since January this year and is working her way through the school’s various policies. School meals are high on her list of areas she wants to look at.

“Cost has governed everything that has gone on before,” she says, “but I want to look at our school meals, what we are serving and what do the children like, because it is important that they enjoy what they are served.

“The proportion of children bringing packed lunches compared to school meals has increased significantly recently,” she says.

“We had a price increase last year to £1.70 and fewer children are taking it, so cost may still be a factor. But food prices are going up for packed lunches as well.”

Trying to meet the same nutritional standards for all children as called for by the School Food Trust is a tall order for parents making up packed lunches, says LACA chair Lynda Mitchell.

“LACA would say, ‘let us take the worry out of the parents’ days by serving the children a hot, nutritious lunch.

“And rather than have to cook them a second hot meal when they get home, give them a healthy snack. They will then know exactly what their children are eating.’”

Packed lunches are perceived to be cheaper, she says, but that depends on what you put in them.
“You could produce a packed lunch for less than £2, but it is most likely to be with products which are the most poorly based nutritionally.

“And a lot of people are not prepared to spend the time – or just don’t have the time if they are working – to prepare and cook the sort of dishes suggested by the WCRF.”

The WCRF report proposed lunch boxes contain dishes such as cous cous with roasted vegetables and chick peas; whole grain pasta salad with tinned tuna, cherry tomatoes, sweetcorn and spring onions; or wholegrain pitta bread with falafel, lettuce, cress, tomato and cucumber.

“It is far more convenient to take something off the shelf, but when they do a real price comparison with a school meal, they are often surprised at how little is the difference,” says Mitchell.

She also expressed concern about the health risks to children where lunches are stored in classrooms with the heating on.

“Schools should not have to provide chilled storage if the parents decide not to take up the hot meal choice, she says.

While primary schools have higher standards because it is a lot easier to control choice, cash cafeterias are still a challenge in secondary schools, where students can eat the same thing every day and get no balance in their diet.

Things have improved because state schools have removed a lot of items for sale to comply with nutritional requirements, but Mitchell is concerned about the fast-growing academies and free schools which are not controlled by local education departments, where the nutritional regulations don’t apply and where budgetary pressures could encourage schools to look for other ways to supplement their income.

“If a vending machine can bring in £10,000 to £15,000 we could end up with a two-tier system again and be back where we were before,” she says, “ where one school goes for what is popular and another for what can be governed.”

Steve Quinn, managing director of school meals contractor Cucina, applauds the report from the WCRF.

“Seeing some of the things coming into schools in packed lunch boxes, it’s not surprising that health and behaviour suffers,” he says.

“But there is no point in telling children what they should and should not eat. They may have the most nutritious food in the world in their lunch box but if they don’t eat it, it’s not healthy.”
Besides, eating a school lunch was now becoming ‘cool’, he said.

“Children are eating with us more frequently. It’s where children are trying new dishes, in a social environment which involves their friends, rather than being introduced to new tastes at home.”
Cucina is currently catering in 38 schools and claims to at least double or treble sales when it takes on a new contract, and has seen uptake quadruple in one establishment.

“We employ experienced, high quality chefs in every school restaurant, working from 6am to 6pm – a restaurant day – and producing everything from scratch – bread, soups, sauces even tomato ketchup,” Quinn says.

He admits labour costs can be high, but says that if sales didn’t respond, they couldn’t afford to do it.

“We may be marginally more expensive than other contractors but we get more children eating healthy food and their behaviour is better in the afternoons. We are also involved in the school curriculum, with careers advice, healthy eating, nutrition and bringing children into the kitchens.”

One of the secrets of Cucina’s success is what it calls ‘stealthy eating’.

“We sneak things in,” Quinn says, “like hiding a carrot behind a piece of beef.”  But there is a lot more to it than that.

“It’s important to serve children the things they want to eat but still make sure it’s healthy and nutritious,” he says. “So for instance, pizza. We make the dough from flour which is milled especially for us and we mix grated carrots and courgettes in with it. It’s more nutritious and it tastes good.
“We will also ‘hide’ vegetables in the tomato sauce and we use mozzarella cheese which is one-third the fat of cheddar.

“Everything on the menu has to have fruit or vegetables in it. So for chocolate brownies we grate in beetroot; there are courgettes in the muffins; bread contains carrots and jelly has fruit in.

“We even surprised one student by putting mandarins in the tiramisu and while he challenged it, he enjoyed it when he ate it. Chocolate and orange is known to be a good combination.”

As the number of contracts continues to increase, so does the company’s buying power which enables it to keep prices down. Cucina also buys from growers and manufacturers where it can to reduce the supply chain and cut costs.

“We serve the same menu right across the portfolio and the menu changes every half term so we can buy in bulk and analyse which are the most popular dishes,” Quinn says.

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