The statistics regarding childhood health and overweight children are alarming, says Roger Smith. Here are some practical suggestions to promote healthy eating habits in children

We don’t always have to agree with her, but the first sentences of Janet Street Porter’s column in the Independent on Sunday 24 February 2008 are useful starting points when looking at healthy eating in schools. She suggests that: ‘A whopping number of kids – around a quarter – are  now officially overweight before they’ve even started primary school, according to new statistics released by the Department of Health. It has only taken a couple of generations for small children to morph from skinny live wires into chubby couch potatoes who sit glued to their screens, don’t walk anywhere and who shun the idea of sporting activity.’ If the figures she mentions are accurate, problems associated with children’s eating habits begin at home and, of course, like many other issues, ultimately become problems that schools have to develop strategies to solve.

None of us would want to hide behind the argument that we have enough to do with teaching and testing the curriculum without having to become involved in the health issues surrounding obesity, healthy eating and effective exercise. We have to be involved and we should want to be involved. We all accept the Every Child Matters agenda and know that promoting healthy eating will help children to succeed and to live longer and more fulfilling lives.

More and more figures!

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology in 2003 suggested that 8.5% of six-year-olds were obese and 15% of 15-year-olds – remember this is obese and doesn’t include all those children who are obviously overweight. They go on to state that the prevalence of obesity in adults has trebled in the last 20 years (1983-2003). It is the difference in percentages between ages six and 15 that is frightening. My grasp of statistics suggests that obesity almost doubles during the time that a child is at school. If this is true then supporting healthy eating should be at the top of the pile marked ‘important things to do’. Weight and obesity are also linked to childhood diabetes, which has seen a three-fold increase in the last 30 years. If weight, obesity and diabetes are added to behaviour issues related to food additives and high sugar content then we must take action. Maintaining and raising standards are our mantra, but not within a vacuum. Healthy children must mean children who are not only eager to learn but are able to learn more effectively.

Where do we start?

The Food in Schools initiative (FIS), introduced by the Department of Health and DfES, suggests that schools working towards the healthy eating strand of the National Healthy School Standard (NHSS) need to take into account the information given below. Many schools see healthy eating as a key issue in raising educational standards, but if there is some reluctance among your staff, try them with this information – it might help persuade them that there is no time to waste:

  • 37% of pupils said that they would select healthy foods at school if there was a better choice available and 18% wanted the taste of healthy food options to be improved.
  • 8% of pupils have nothing to eat before school and this rises to 18% as children get older.
  • In a typical week, one in five children will eat no fruit at all.
  • Nine out of ten children are taking food into school that contains too much sugar, salt and saturated fat.
  • When we are thirsty, mental performance deteriorates by 10%.
  • 58% of children would like to be taught to cook at school.
  • Common food additives, colourings and preservatives can have a significant effect on behaviour and the ability to learn – including increasing the likelihood of tantrums, violence, mood swings and hyperactivity.

What is happening so far?
The National Healthy Schools Programme (NHSP) can be found at www.healthyschools.gov.uk. It aims to promote healthy eating and has set a target that all schools will be participating in the NHSP by 2009 and more than 15% of them will have achieved the NHSS. This is promoted in most, if not all, local authorities and certainly by Ofsted. During their inspections they will ask some serious questions about this aspect of the Every Child Matters agenda. This will mainly be because the range of outcomes related to healthy eating includes the following formidable list that all our parents and governors should be aware of:

  • A healthy lifestyle will help children perform better.
  • A healthy school is an inclusive and successful school.
  • A healthy school has more effective liaison with parents and carers.
  • Children in healthy schools report a range of positive behaviours such as a diminished fear of bullying.
  • Healthy schools are making improvements at a rate faster than schools nationally, including quality of personal, social and health education and management of behaviour.
  • In healthy schools achieving the outcomes within the Every Child Matters framework is more effective.

If you haven’t thought about achieving the NHSS there is a DfES publication of 1999, entitled The National Healthy School Standard Guidance, which is interesting if you have time to read it. But your LEA will have developed local programmes. My own authority has a healthy schools coordinator and advisers who are able to visit schools to support their progress towards achieving NHSS and to provide training, share good practice and moderate and award NHSS status.

If you are trying to achieve this award it is important that it isn’t an ‘add-on’ that one person can be sidelined to complete in their spare time. You will certainly need someone to coordinate it, but it is a whole-school, whole-curriculum issue involving positive leadership, the development of clear policies and the inclusion of health issues – especially those related to eating and fitness in all your planning and policies. The whole-school culture and the whole-school community will need to have a positive input that includes parents and children as well as the wider community of health workers and those providing school meals.

Some practical suggestions

We can’t promote and develop healthy eating and change the world on our own. We need as much expertise as possible and must certainly have the support and encouragement of whoever provides food at lunchtime. School meals should be at the heart of healthy eating. In March 2005 the secretary of state for education initiated a package of measures to improve the quality of school meals with £240m available to subsidise ingredients between 2008 and 2011. The school food and drink section of TeacherNet has more details.

It is quite easy to find schools where all kinds of ideas are being trialled and developed and school meals are a good starting point. Many schools use their kitchens and their cooks to send out the healthy eating message to the whole community. Healthy Eating Evenings are organised with examples of healthy meals as well as talks by school health visitors, the headteacher and, better still, by children. The aim is to emphasise some key healthy eating, fitness and weight issues.

One school used an event like this to promote its simple but effective list of ‘Eating Tips for Parents’. I am sure you will have your own views and know what the needs of your parents are, but this particular school included:

  • Try to encourage your child to eat breakfast every day. (A list of healthy breakfast foods was included.)
  • If your child is not keen on vegetables disguise them by chopping them into small pieces and adding them to pasta dishes, curry dishes and stews.
  • Encourage them to eat raw carrots and celery.
  • Encourage your child to eat more fruit by adding it to cereal or yoghurt at breakfast time. Provide fruit as a morning snack or as a dessert.
  • Make healthy food with your child. Homemade sandwiches and pizzas are simple and can be filled or topped with sweetcorn, tomatoes, peppers and tuna.
  • Avoid giving your child too much processed food that contains fat. If you fry food, use less oil.
  • Encourage snacking on foods and drinks that do not contain too much sugar.
  • Try to reduce the amount of fizzy drinks and check labels so that you can avoid additives such as ‘e’ numbers and colourings.

There is an excellent website that some local schools have used and have encouraged parents and children to use: Eat Well Be Well.

The school council can take some radical decisions. For example, two schools that I know have used children to develop a healthy snacking policy and to take decisions on what is served at their breakfast club. For some children the school breakfast club is an important lifeline so it is important to make sure that what they get is high quality. Children know what they like and are often good judges of what they will eat that is healthy.

Many surveys have identified packed lunches as a source of fats, sugars and additives. Healthy packed lunches are essential and parents need to be persuaded that what they give their children to eat during the school day can have a positive or a negative effect on how their child learns. Many parents may need persuading, but armed with some good facts or even a visiting speaker, such as a health visitor, it is possible to persuade reluctant parents that what their child eats can affect how they learn and ultimately their educational performance.

One local school near me asks for voluntary contributions of at least £1.00 each week to fund its continuous supply of filtered water during the day and its readily available ‘free’ fruit and vegetable snacks and drinks. It seems to me that it would be less intrusive and divisive to allocate part of the school’s budget to the food and drink aspect and use tap water instead.

I’d like to end on an example that really does make a whole-school issue out of good, healthy food. Each year this particular school had three healthy café days. Local chefs came into school to work with groups of children to not only devise menus but cost the food and source it from local shops. They then learned how to cook it and serve it in a professional way to invited parents and governors. It involved aspects of the whole curriculum and was a serious attempt to be creative and fun and create good healthy food.

But it didn’t end there. The chefs attracted a healthy crowd of parents during an evening demonstration where they prepared simple, healthy snacks and meals. As an extra bonus, members of the local football team came in to talk about what they ate to maintain their fitness levels. And, as we all know, most children will usually take notice of their heroes.

Roger Smith is a former primary headteacher

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