Smorgasbord Health Column – The Obesity epidemic – Part Four– Finding a point to intervene in the life cycle – 7 – 14 -School Lunches – Sally Cronin


In  part three of this series I looked at children aged two to seven years old with the emphasis on activity and Vitamin D to complement a freshly cooked varied diet and build strong bodies and an effective immune system.

The Obesity epidemic – Part Four– Finding a point to intervene in the life cycle – 7 – 14 –  School Lunches

This week I am going to cover, what I consider the best time to intervene in the obesity epidemic, to achieve the most effective results.

This is a time of enormous growth and development physically and mentally for a child and they need the best nutrition possible to achieve that healthily.

In next week’s post I am going to share what is needed for healthy brain development, but first a look at the lunchtime meal of the day that our school children are being provided in this age group, including packed lunches.

My experience of cooking for children is within this age group and with 110 students and 20 staff to cater for, three times a day.  I had a great opportunity to not just influence their diet, but to see the results of an 80% fresh, cooked from scratch approach to the process.

Admittedly they were a captive study group since it was a boarding school and they ate all their meals there, rather than just a lunch. But, there was no obesity, and their diet was combined with sports and daily activities which were also supervised.

This was forty years ago, but I believe the same formula is needed in schools today, boarding or day schools.

What is happening in the UK

In the UK the government has made an effort to promote healthy eating in schools and here is an extract from their official report that you can read in full: UK Government School Meals standards

“The government encourages all schools to promote healthy eating and provide healthy, tasty and nutritious food and drink. Compliance with the School Food Standards is mandatory for all maintained schools. We also expect all academies and free schools to comply with the standards, and since 2014 we have made this an explicit requirement in their funding agreements.These school food standards are to ensure that food provided to pupils in school is nutritious and of high quality; to promote good nutritional health in all pupils; protect those who are nutritionally vulnerable and to promote good eating behaviour”

Most schools do provide healthy and varied meals for their students, and since 2008 there have been standards that have to be complied with that bans sweets, chocolate, fizzy drinks and packaged snacks.

However, these standards do not apply to packed lunches brought to school by the students. In this report the number of children taking a packed lunch to school in the UK is quoted as 4 million, which is 5.5 billion packed lunches a year.

There are approximately 11 million school children in the UK  with 4.5 million being in the primary school age group. Children up to 7 years old receive free lunches, with some other age groups eligible for free lunches too depending on their circumstances. With the number of packed lunches at 4 million this would leave in the region of only 3 million students in this 7-14 age group eating a cooked school dinner  ..Daily Telegraph

  • An analysis of 1,300 packed lunches for children aged between eight and nine in schools across Britain was published online ahead of print in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. All the children took a packed lunch to school on at least one day of the week, and almost nine out of 10 ate a packed lunch every day.
  • Sandwiches, sweets, savoury snacks and artificially sweetened drinks were the most common items found in lunch boxes.
  • Foods that would be allowed in schools meals were the least likely to be provided in lunch boxes with only one in ten children having sandwiches with vegetables in them and a further one in ten being given a portion of vegetables.
  • Contents of the lunch boxes were recorded before and after the meal so researchers could discover what foods the child ate and which they left.
  • The children were most likely to eat the confectionary and least likely to eat the fruit.
  • More than a quarter of children had a lunch box that contained sweets, savoury snacks such as crisps and a sugary drink.
  • Another quarter had a similar lunch box without a sugary drink and fewer than one in ten had lunch boxes with none of these items.
  • Less than half of the lunch boxes had foods with sufficient levels of vitamin A, folate, iron and zinc.

There are two key processes going on in the body of a boy and a girl in this age group. Brain development and a healthy reproductive system at puberty.

This is why, in my opinion, this 7 – 14 age period in a child’s life is the best time to intervene with regard to obesity.  There are some other elements to consider, that I feel should be highlighted. NHS – Obesity and Costs

  • Nearly a third of children aged 2 to 15 are overweight or obese and younger generations are becoming obese at earlier ages and staying obese for longer.
  • It is estimated that obesity is responsible for more than 30,000 deaths each year. On average, obesity deprives an individual of an extra 9 years of life, preventing many individuals from reaching retirement age. In the future, obesity could overtake tobacco smoking as the biggest cause of preventable death.
  • More broadly, obesity has a serious impact on economic development. The overall cost of obesity to wider society is estimated at £27 billion.
  • The UK-wide NHS costs attributable to overweight and obesity are projected to reach £9.7 billion by 2050, with wider costs to society estimated to reach £49.9 billion per year.

Currently the cost to the NHS is estimated at £5.5 billion for obesity related interventions, including hospital admissions, prescriptions and it is more if you take into account surgeries for joint replacements, heart disease etc related to obesity and lifestyle related issues.

The cost of a free school meal in the age group 4-7 years old is paid by the government at £2.30 and in a recent report I read, it was estimated it would cost £950 million to extend this to 11 years old. Which presumably means that extending it to 14 years old would add a further £712 million…Taking the annual commitment to providing a healthy lunch for all children within that age group to £1.6 Billion.

However, this investment in a free school lunch for all children, of £1.6 billion per year, would in my view significantly reduce the current £5 billion burden carried by the UK health service, and certainly the projected £9.7 Billion and the overall £49.9 Billion impact on the economy, by the time the current primary school children are parents to the next generation in 2050.

What else can we do to make a difference in schools to improve the obesity projections.

I make no bones about it, parents need to take responsibility for their child’s health and foods that they eat. And this point is highlighted by the fact that an estimated 1 million children are going to school each day with a packed lunch that is full of processed industrial snacks and too much sugar. And only 10% of children are being given healthy sandwiches or snacks.

That being said, there is no doubt that there are parents who are struggling to provide a healthy alternative to a school lunch especially with more than one child..

Currently school dinner costs vary between £7.50 to £12.50 per week, so between £1.50 to £2.50 per lunch. If you have two or three children in the school system then this adds up and could be costing you £150 per month, which explains the 4 million children taking packed lunches. That figure is more or less in line with the £2.30 that the government is currently paying for each child on the free meals programme.

Whilst a growing number of schools make every effort to provide a nutritionally adequate lunch, including growing their own foods, this is not across the board. Unfortunately, looking at some of the images of the school dinners being provided, even though there are some basic standards that have been adhered to, there are appallingly nutrient deprived plates being served to children at the most important developmental stage of their lives.

A large part of the problem is that in certain areas, the food and choices is driven by cost not nutrition, and carbohydrate is the king on the plate using the cheapest options such as white bread, white rice and pasta. Also healthy fats which are so important at this age are replaced with unhealthy margarine, cooking oils such as corn oil and there is insufficient fresh vegetables content on the plate. Whilst Europe has a great deal less GMO crops, in certain countries, corn is the vegetable of choice both as an oil to cook with and to feed children and livestock. With at much as 95% being GMO and treated with Round Up weedkiller, it would not be my vegetable of choice for either child or livestock!

If the government funded free school lunches for children that would remove that financial burden and with some more efficient management of the system, improve the nutritional density of every child’s diet.

I believe that school meals should be partially sponsored by the main supermarkets as a community and a marketing project. I would estimate that nearly every school within the UK is within walking distance of a local major chain supermarket.

  1. They already buy fresh seasonal produce at cost that they could provide to schools at the same price.
  2. For example Tesco already donates to nominated charities each month in our area to the tune of thousands of pounds a year. Why not provide the equivalent in food to local schools?
  3. They could also provide healthy grains and fats such as butter and even perhaps milk so that all children get a glass at break time.
  4. They have in house bakeries with freshly made wholegrain bread.
  5. They have other products that are own brand such as seasonings, flour, teas, juices, etc. Although as a caterer you would be looking for a different pack size, they too do bulk buy packs of staples.
  6. They are influencing not just the parents to shop in their store, but also the next generation of customers.

All schools should have a domestic science class, which includes the basics of health nutrition from the age of 11. Basic cooking skills should be taught and main meals should be the focus with fresh produce (donated by the supermarket). Especially vegetables and other produce that is still edible but has been reduced to sell. There should be input from a qualified nutritional specialist in the lesson planning and content, as well as advising on the school lunches being served. It is hoped that most school districts already have someone in that role already, although the results do not necessarily support that.

The students should also be taught how to shop for food, budget and to plan a week’s menu. .

If the class is the last class of the morning, the meals can be served up at lunchtime alongside the other food offering variety or could be taken home to benefit the whole family.

By the time every child reaches 16 years old they should be able to shop, plan meals and cook healthy basics for themselves, that in itself will help prevent obesity in that age group and as they move forward in their lives.

Many schools, especially those in more rural locations, already have gardens where they grow some vegetables, herbs etc and some even have chickens. I would love to see that extended to all schools with every age group involved in tending the garden from seed to table. I am not sure about the school where they had a pig, and the children naturally became very attached, only to have it dispatched and served up for lunch!  I agree children should understand where their food comes from and respect it as an essential food, but it should be well thought out.

Here is a link that you might find interesting if you are looking to encourage a school in your area to start a food growing programme in the London area: http://www.foodgrowingschools.org/

Here is school garden in the Boston area.. courtesy of WGBH News

And another approach that I really like is the French school lunch system, prepared in a central kitchen in the school district under stringent health and safety regulations, and under the guidance of a nutritionist... I would love to see this in place in the UK in areas which are restricted on space and without their own cooking facilities. Courtesy of CBS

Next week I am going to focus on brain development and what foods should be included in a child of this age’s diet.

©Just Food for Health 1998 – 2019

My nutritional background

I am a qualified nutritional therapist with twenty years experience working with clients in Ireland and the UK as well as being a health consultant on radio in Spain. Although I write a lot of fiction, I actually wrote my first two books on health, the first one, Size Matters, a weight loss programme 20 years ago, based on my own weight loss of 154lbs. My first clinic was in Ireland, the Cronin Diet Advisory Centre and my second book, Just Food for Health was written as my client’s workbook. Since then I have written a men’s health manual, and anti-aging programme, articles for magazines and posts here on Smorgasbord.

If you would like to browse my health books and fiction in ebooks you can find them here: https://smorgasbordinvitation.wordpress.com/my-books-and-reviews-2019/

As always delighted to get your feedback and questions. This is not intended to take the place of your doctor’s presence in your life. But, certainly in the UK, where you are allocated ten minutes for a consultation and time is of the essence; going in with some understanding of how your body works and is currently functioning can assist in making a correct diagnosis.

Some doctors believe that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. However, I believe that understanding our bodies, how it works, how we can help prevent health problems and knowing the language that doctors speak, makes a difference.  Taking responsibility for our bodies health is the first step to staying well.

Thank you for reading and I am sure that you have your own experiences to share about school dinners.

I have read from excellent to appalling in my research and for me that means that nutrition for children at this age is hit and miss and needs to be overhauled to ensure that every child is provided with at least one meal a day that provides what they need to develop physically and mentally.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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