July 23, 2013

UK Report: Don’t Let Parents Make Lunch For Their Kids At School

By: Emma Elliott Freire

British school children may soon be banned from bringing their own lunches to school. Instead, schools will provide free meals to all students. And to ensure they don’t buy unhealthy snacks, children may be barred from leaving school premises during breaks in the day.

These are some of the recommendations in The School Food Plan, a new report by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, founders of a chain of restaurants called Leon. The UK’s Department of Education asked Dimbleby and Vincent to study school meals and provide recommendations to improve nutrition.

The suggested ban on homemade lunches is the most controversial aspect of their 150-page report. Currently, 57 percent of the UK’s primary school students bring their own lunch to school. Thus, a ban would represent a major cultural shift.

This idea is particularly radical given that the UK is still reeling from a scandal over horsemeat. Earlier this year, British consumers were horrified to discover that products labeled “beef” at major supermarkets contained horsemeat. Dimbleby and Vincent are optimistic if they believe parents will easily cede control over their children’s lunches.

The School Food Plan remains adamant that homemade lunches are a major contributing factor to childhood obesity. Studies show that only 1 percent of homemade lunches meet government nutritional standards. The report argues, “It is far easier to get the necessary nutrients into a cooked meal – even one of mediocre quality.”

The School Food Plan recommends providing free meals to all primary school children, not just those from low-income families. “We understand that the considerable cost and the need to involve other departments make it a big ask,” the report authors write.

Indeed, the idea seems to fly in the face of the UK’s current financial reality. The UK’s government debt exceeds 90 percent of national GDP. Most departments have had their budgets cut. The free school meals are estimated to cost over $1.5 billion.

The School Food Plan argues that increasing the number of students who eat school meals would generate economies of scale. “A half-empty dining hall – like a half-empty restaurant – is certain to lose money. In order for the school food service to break even, average take-up needs to get above 50 percent [of students].”

And why stop at just one meal per meal day? The School Food Plan recommends providing breakfast to all students from low-income families. After an initial government grant, so-called “Breakfast Clubs” could become financially self-sufficient by relying on volunteers and charging students modest fees.

The School Food Plan welcomes the government’s recent decision to make cooking lessons mandatory for students up to age 14. The Plan also encourages local schools to considering offering cooking classes to parents in the afternoons or evenings.

The day-to-day improvement of meals will fall to the UK’s cafeteria workers. Over 60,000 people are employed in school food service in the UK, making it a bigger workforce than the country’s Navy. Their performance is very uneven both in terms of quality of meals and overall efficiency. The School Food Plan believes the answer is more training. In particular, they would like to see courses specifically for school food service and professional qualifications. They also believe cafeteria staff should be accorded more respect and higher status within schools.

With a guaranteed—perhaps even compulsory—clientele, will staff have any incentive to provide quality and efficiency? The School Food Plan does not address that question. The implication is that regulations combined with training and greater status are sufficient motivation for cafeteria workers.

The quality of school food has been a major political concern in the UK for nearly a decade. Celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver helped put the issue on the map with a documentary series called Jamie’s School Dinners in 2005. Viewers were shocked as he exposed the fat and calorie contents of meals commonly served to students.

The School Food Plan lavishes praise on Oliver’s work and acknowledges the improvements that have been made since 2005. Interestingly, Oliver criticized the Plan when it was commissioned last year. He said, “Now is not the time for more costly reports. Now is the time for action.” He argued that the new report would only repeat ideas that he and others have been advocating for years.

Now that the School Food Plan has been published, he welcomes it saying, “I believe this plan is a real, positive step forwards in the fight for better health for our children.But his original diagnosis was correct: it contains few ideas that have not previously been put forward elsewhere. The biggest difference seems to be that the School Food Plan is presented on a sleek website with videos and infographics.

And this may not be an end to the studies. The School Food Plan notes any number of areas that require further inquiry. No doubt more reports will be commissioned before some of the more radical proposals are adopted. Most of today’s students will likely have graduated before school cafeterias undergo real changes.

Emma Elliott Freire is an American writer living in England. Image of school girl in front of British flag courtesy of Big Stock Photo.