Spot the vegetable

The Government has cooked up new guidelines on school meals. But, as Julia Brannen and Pamela Storey report, it will be a long road back to health

"School food has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years". So said Cheryl Gillan when she recently unveiled new guidelines for school meals from the Department of Education and Employment. These guidelines are available to schools if they request them.

Officially, soggy vegetables may be a thing of the past, but a close look at school dinner plates today reveals few vegetables, save the ubiquitous potato. A recent study (funded by the Health Education Authority) of the health behaviour of more than 500 11-year-olds in the first year at secondary school uncovered a lunchtime menu of "junk" and snack foods. Children's accounts of what they purchase from the school canteen list pizza, chips, burgers, baked beans, pies and the occasional fish finger. Vegetables, salad and fruit are rarely mentioned.

While children in primary schools usually sit down to a set meal, in secondary schools they are likely to exercise their own choice. In place of the "proper meal", school food is provided according to a market-led system. Children select individual foods and pay on an itemised basis. They enjoy this new freedom. Indeed, many cite it as a principal attraction of their transition to "Big School". As one girl said: "We weren't allowed to do that in my old school. It's much better getting to choose your own choice."

At the same time, children are very aware of the limitations of the food choices available to them. "You only get the hot dogs and chips and stuff, it's the same food everyday. It's not very healthy for you." Not surprising then that the take-up of school meals has fallen dramatically. More and more children, particularly girls, opt to take their own packed lunch. However, around half of children, both nationally and in the study, have school lunch.

Most parents reflect their children's concerns about the quality of the school food and adopt a damage-limitation exercise. Some insist on packed lunch, "then I'll know what they have and they can have their meal at night." Others compromise with parked lunch some days and the "treat" of money to choose food in the canteen once or twice a week. Others allow children to buy lunch every day, to encourage decision-making and money- management as part of the growing-up process.

A substantial proportion of children who eat school food every day are from low-income families and are entitled to free vouchers. Children most likely to eat in the school canteen are those with parents in lower-status occupations or with no parent in full-time employment. While not nationally representative, nearly one in three of the study children has no parent in full-time employment. This finding reflects similar results from a recent national study from the Department of Social Security. Four in five of these children eat lunch in the school canteen.

Those most likely to rely on the school canteen during the day are the least advantaged children in our society. This is cause for concern if the food that they are eating does not meet their nutritional needs. Certainly the meals described by these children are generally far from balanced.

Children having school lunch report eating fresh fruit and vegetables less often than those having packed lunch. Only a fifth report eating fresh fruit every day and less than a fifth eat vegetables every day. However, packed lunches are reported rarely to contain fruit or vegetables. And while children having school dinner are likely to tuck into chips everyday, those with packed lunches are most likely to be opening a bag of crisps.

Asked to assess their diet, less than half the children rate what they eat as unequivocally healthy. Over half see their diet as mixed, both healthy and unhealthy, or as unhealthy. However, nearly two-thirds of girls are optimistic that they will be eating healthily by the time they reach age 16. Boys are more sceptical. Children's comments about school meals reflect their assessments of their diet. One girl realistically sums it up: "The food is not very healthy. But that's good because normally teenagers don't want healthy food."

The school curriculum ignores the fact that a lot of eating goes on in school time. Few study children recall the topic of nutrition being covered in class. Teachers themselves report very limited coverage. Like most schools, none of the study schools has a healthy-eating policy or imposes any restrictions on the food on offer. One school has a traditional tuck shop, another allows a mobile caterer to park in the playground at lunchtime to sell ice cream and hot dogs. In such a milieu, messages about healthy eating look hollow.

In 1980, the Government abolished national school nutrition standards. In 1988, it subjected the school meals service to competitive tendering. In 1997, children's nutrition is a national priority. Voluntary guidelines are not enough The writers work at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education, London University.

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