Last reviewed 31 January 2012

Martin Hodgson examines the latest initiatives to encourage children to eat healthy food.

Introduction

Schools are to be encouraged to offer more cut-price meals in a bid to entice more pupils back into their canteens, the Government has stated. The announcement comes just weeks after England's new academy schools were urged to commit to serving healthier food to pupils.

What are academies being asked to commit to, what is “flexible charging” and how could it help increase the numbers of school children eating healthier meals?

Competition between fast food and school meals

Despite a welcome trend of more pupils eating school meals, government figures show that, at the start of secondary school, many pupils stop eating school lunches and are tempted instead by local takeaways and fast-food outlets.

One factor involved in this decision definitely seems to be price, with the cheapness of fast food being a major attraction. Research by consultants London Economics, published last year by the School Food Trust, found that a 10% increase in the price of meals triggered a drop of between 7% and 10% in the number of pupils eating school food.

Many schools have therefore been asking for years for the ability to compete with the fast-food outlets by being able to vary the price of their meals, so-called “flexible charging”.

How easier “flexible charging” could help

At present, schools wanting to compete with the low prices charged by fast-food outlets and offer their own meal deals need special permission not to charge everyone the same amount per item. This provides a significant block to such initiatives.

However, the Government has announced that from September 2012, a change in the law will make it easier for schools to run dinner price promotions, especially promotions targeting pupils starting a new school to get them into the canteen.

Other options might be special prices for siblings regularly eating school meals, or cheap deals for different year groups each day to encourage them to choose healthy school meals rather than take-away chips.

To safeguard pupils not included in a special offer, the rules will still prevent schools from charging more than the cost of providing the meal.

Trials at schools saw a sharp rise in take-up once price promotions were introduced, with the former seeing around 6000 extra school lunches being served to children in just 6 weeks.

The pilot, which offered children in 20 local primary schools all meals for £1, saw school meal numbers rise from 6360 a week to an average of 11,242 during the first half of the spring term.

Reaction to the announcement

Children's minister Sarah Teather said: “School meals beat takeaways hands-down on the quality of food they serve, but until now they have struggled to compete on price. These new powers are an important step in tackling childhood obesity and will mean schools can help hard-pressed families.”

Judy Hargadon, Chief Executive of the School Food Trust — the national charity and specialist advisory body to the Government on school meals — said: “When children eat better, they do better — which is why we want to see more children able to have a healthy school meal every day. Many parents have told us they would be more likely to try school meals for their child if they were on offer at a discount.”

Academies and food standards

The government announcement about the change in the law comes just weeks after it was revealed that England's new academy schools were being urged to commit to serving healthier food to pupils.

TV chef Jamie Oliver raised concerns by suggesting that food quality may be slipping in academies, which are not subject to The Education (Nutritional Standards and Requirements for School Food) (England) Regulations 2007 (as amended) brought in after a campaign by the chef.

The regulations were introduced in England for local authority primary schools in 2008 and in secondary schools in 2009. Similar guidelines cover Scotland, while Wales intends to enshrine its guidelines in law from 2013.

According to the regulations, schools should:

  • restrict the amount of fatty, sugary and salty foods on the menu

  • increase the use of fresh fruit and vegetables

  • ban the sale of sweets, crisps and fizzy drinks.

In England, local authority schools also have to supply meals that comply with strict nutrient standards.

Academies are semi-independent schools and as such they do not have to abide by the regulations which removed sweets, crisps and fizzy drinks from vending machines and introduced new healthy menu and food procurement systems.

While welcomed by the majority, the food standards regulations have not been universally popular and in some areas there is a fear that they might contribute to the trend of fewer children eating school meals and an increase in the use of fast food.

Action by the School Food Trust

Following the fresh concerns raised by Jamie Oliver and other campaigners, the School Food Trust has stated that it is writing to all 1400 academies in England asking them to confirm their adherence to national school meal nutrition standards.

The names of academies which pledge to follow the national standards for healthy school meals will be published on the School Food Trust website and it will publish a report to the Government on meals in the state-funded, but privately run, schools early in 2012.

The charity is also urging anyone with concerns about food in academy schools to share their evidence with the trust.

Tackling obesity

Encouraging children to access high-quality school meals in all schools, including academies, is a key element in tackling obesity. Latest figures from the National Child Measurement Programme, published in December 2011, show the following.

  • More than a fifth (22.6%) of the children measured as they started school were either overweight or obese.

  • The percentage of obese children in Year 6 (19%) is over double that in Reception (9.4%).

  • Levels of obesity were highest amongst children living in the London Strategic Health Authority area.

  • Obesity was more prevalent among children attending schools in more deprived areas.

The figures show that more needs to be done for the Government to meet its target to reduce childhood obesity to 2000 levels by 2020, and the School Food Trust states that encouraging children to eat school meals which adhere to national school food standards is vital in this.

Further information

The School Food Trust letter to academy schools can be read on its website.