2 news items this morning on BBC Radio 4 struck home: secondary school canteen providers are up in arms declaring that meeting the new food quality regulations for the meals they deliver, will reduce variety and the children will go elsewhere. [Over a 3 week period school meals will have to reach a certain level of 14 vitamin and micronutrients such as iron, calcium and zinc.] The second item was an interview concerning the credit crunch effects on youth violence, where the interviewee described the relationship between the UK and the USA as joined at the hip!
Here in the UK, Jamie Oliver & his ilk have caused a sea-change in the government’s attitude to school meals but it’s not joined up thinking. In some places school canteens have been provided, in others school kitchens have closed in order to free funds to pay for another teacher to provide cover for lesson planning time (how do you resolve two conflicting edicts within a limited budget!?).
So if we really are joined at the hip, I wondered what was the take-up of school meals in the USA and did they have to meet certain nutrient levels…..is it indeed only the variety of food on offer that determines pupil take-up or is it the cost or, just maybe, its the amount of time allocated to eating the meal and the canteen facilities (seating, ability to “hang-out”)….
To answer this, I delved into Global Health and here are a selection of relevant recent studies in the UK and the USA. They look at what the kids eat, why its important (educationally as well as links to obesity), and national school policy:
- Dietary patterns related to attainment in school: the importance of early eating patterns. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 2008
- The contribution of school meals to food consumption and nutrient intakes of young people aged 4-18 years in England
Public Health Nutrition, 2007
“School meals [in 2004-2005] failed to make good the shortfalls in daily intakes …of calcium, iron, zinc, vitamin A and non-starch polysaccharides in secondary-school pupils, nor excess daily intakes of saturated fatty acids, non-milk extrinsic sugars and sodium at all ages.”
- Nutritional Quality of the Diets of US Public School Children and the Role of the School Meal Programs. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2009.
- Effects of Federal Legislation on Wellness Policy Formation in School Districts in the United States. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2009.
- School food environments and policies in US public schools. Pediatrics, 2008. "As children move to higher grade levels, their school food environments become less healthy. The great majority of US secondary schools sell items a la carte in the cafeteria and through vending machines, and these 2 sources often contain low-nutrient, energy-dense foods and beverages, commonly referred to as junk food."
- White whole-wheat flour can be partially substituted for refined-wheat flour in pizza crust in school meals without affecting consumption. Journal of Child Nutrition and Management, 2008, Vol. 32, No. 1, article 6 (Unique to Global Health)
Design and implementation of a pilot obesity prevention program in a low-resource school: Lessons learned and research recommendations. Health Education (Unique to Global Health)
Most of the above studies involve either observing or asking the children about their eating habits: ask them a different set of questions and you find that it's not just the actual food that matters but avoiding queues, hanging-out time with your friends and sufficient seating. If you involve them, you can change their food choices:
What the kids had to say
- School Nutrition Action Groups and their effect upon secondary school-aged pupils' food choices Nutrition Bulletin,2005
- The influence of the secondary school setting on the food practices of young teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds in Scotland Health Education Research, 2005
“young teenagers' dislike for queuing for food, their ability to budget for food at school and their desire to maximize time spent with friends influence food choices”
The UK government feels that these new micronutrient standards for school meals should not affect meal variety whilst the meal providers disagree. Neither of them seem to be addressing a highly relevant factor: the customer experience.