School meals are in the news again, as Hull City Council announces the success of its free healthy lunch programme for primary and special school pupils. Over the two years that the Hull programme has been running,  school meals have been in the media and political spotlight. Back in 2006,  Anna Denny, nutrition scientist at British Nutrition Foundation, provided the following background information to readers of Secondary Headship.

School food has been at the top of the political menu for much of 2006. The government’s Healthy Living Blueprint for Schools, the infamous Jamie Oliver and ongoing initiatives such as the Healthy Schools programme have instigated a wide range of changes, both in the formal curriculum and in food and drink provision in schools.

In October 2005 the secretary of state published for consultation the final School Meals Review Panel (SMRP) report on nutritional standards for school lunches; Turning the Tables: Transforming School Food. The questions for schools are now: What role can schools play in improving school food?; What needs to be done to make sure the new standards for school meals work from inception?; What support is available to schools working to improve the quality of school food?

A survey of secondary school meals, commissioned by the DfES and the Food Standards Agency, was carried out in 2004 to assess the extent to which school meal provision complied with the 2001 regulations. The survey revealed some stark findings; in 76% of schools chips and potatoes cooked in oil were served four or more times per week and the school meal contributed, on average, less than one portion of fruit and vegetables each day.

The school meals report In response to these concerns over children’s diets, the School Meals Review Panel was established by the DfES to transform school meals. The panel, which included headteachers, governors, school caterers, nutritionists and parents, examined evidence from a wide variety of sources, including scientific studies, evaluative projects and lessons learned from a number of initiatives already under way to improve school meals.

‘The development of whole-school food policies needs to involve all stakeholders in the school’s food service’

The new nutritional standards laid out in the report aim to ensure that school lunch provision contributes 40% of children’s needs of nutrients such as iron, calcium, zinc and a range of vitamins. The core recommendations of the report include:

  • 14 nutrient-based standards for school lunches that should be met, on average, over five consecutive school days
  • nine food-based standards, which aim to maximise access to healthier foods and remove the availability of less healthy options.

For example, a school lunch should provide not less than two portions of fruit and vegetables per day, and deep-fried products should not be available more than twice per week.

The report recommended that food-based standards should be met in all schools by September 2006 and the nutrient-based standards met fully in all secondary schools by September 2009.

How can schools improve school food? The report stresses the importance of going beyond school meals provision and of setting school food within the context of a whole-school approach to food and health. Food and drink provision in schools must support the messages that pupils receive through the formal curriculum, through extra-curricular activities and through aspects of the pastoral care system. This will help equip pupils to make informed choices about their own diet and lifestyle, which will have a positive impact on their present and future health and wellbeing.

The development of whole-school food policies needs to involve all stakeholders in the school’s food service, including headteachers and governors, teachers, catering staff and pupils and parents. Headteachers need to lead the way in encouraging a health-promoting environment in the school by marketing and promoting the school’s food policy to parents and carers, and by engaging pupils and allowing them to voice their opinions. Organisations such as School Nutrition Action Groups (SNAGs) can help schools to audit their current food curriculum and food service, to develop a clear policy on ‘healthy lunchboxes’ and ‘healthy vending’, and can support catering staff to ensure they are able to support pupils in making healthy choices.

What support is available to schools?
Support from a number of sources is available to schools working to meet the standards. The DfES/Department of Health Food in Schools Toolkit is a flexible resource that provides practical guidance on setting up healthier breakfast clubs, tuck shops, vending and extra-curricular activities. The toolkit can be viewed or ordered online at www.foodinschools.org/fis_toolkit.php

The School Food Trust ( www.schoolfoodtrust.org.uk ) promotes the education and health of children and young people by improving the quality of food supplied and consumed in schools. The Trust is working to transform school food menus and skills to improve education and health for children and young people.

The British Nutrition Foundation also provides information and resources on its websites (www.nutrition.org.uk and www.foodafactoflife.org.uk) to support teachers and pupils in schools learning about food and nutrition.

References
Education Regulations 2000 (Nutrition Standards for School Lunches) (England). Available at: www.dfes.gov.uk/schoollunches
Healthy Living Blueprint for Schools. Available at: www.food.gov.uk

You can find out more about the Hull City Council healthy meals programme here.

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