Last reviewed 20 July 2012

Fewer children are choosing chips, and Jamie Oliver thinks Michael Gove needs a little nutrition education with regards to meals in academies... Kathryn Webster investigates.

The School Food Trust has recently published the results of its research into just how effective the national school food standards have been in changing food choice and eating habits in secondary schools. Whereas in 2004, 43% of pupils were choosing chips for lunch, in 2011 it was just 7%. Almost 75% of pupils are now choosing at least one portion of fruit or vegetables at lunchtime, and the average meal now contains one third less fat, sugar and salt, and 50% more vitamin A than in 2004. Far fewer pupils now choose cakes and biscuits and almost all schools have stopped selling confectionery, crisps and sugary drinks.

Since 2000 there has been a succession of measures to improve the quality of school lunches, culminating in the Education (Nutritional Standards and Requirements for School Food) Regulations 2007, which established very strict criteria about the nutritional quality of meals and what schools could sell in tuck shops and vending machines. The unacceptable quality of school meals was highlighted in 2005 with the televising of Jamie Oliver’s attempt to improve the quality of meals in a school in Greenwich, whose daily budget was just 37 pence per meal. Turkey Twizzlers became symbolic of what not to feed children — they contained 21% fat, more than twice the recommended allowance — and were usually served with chips! This research mirrors the findings of school meal uptake and choices in primary schools published in 2010.

So, it is rather disturbing to read that academies and free schools are exempt from complying with the School Meals Regulations. In a healthy school environment pupils receive the same messages at meal and break time as they do in the classroom, but if schools are going to raise money for funding by the sale of sugary drinks, confectionery and crisps — as well as less nutritious meals at lunchtime — in order to increase take-up, then this has to be a significant step backwards. Given that just over half of England's 3261 secondary schools either are or aim to become an academy, this is not good news for young people and their health. Jamie Oliver has recently warned that all this hard-earned progress could be reversed if academies are allowed to continue ignoring the nutrient-based standards and has called for Heads of academies to be provided with full guidance on the type of food they should serve, and for Michael Gove to enforce the standards across all state-funded schools.

Recent research has found a link between children with a high body mass index in childhood, and who remain overweight, and a greater risk of heart disease in adolescence. Balanced school meals that provide children with one third of their daily requirements of energy and nutrients play a significant role in assisting children to maintain a healthy weight and, if necessary, to lose excess weight. Given that nearly 23% of children in reception classes are already overweight, the country faces a huge challenge, so it is vital to establish healthy eating practices as early as possible. It would be a pity if schools designed to provide an improved education actually fail on their pastoral care responsibilities. When finances are tight there is a temptation to sell high profit margin, unhealthy products to maximise income; only mandatory guidelines can prevent such understandable malpractice.