A paper published in the foundation’s latest Nutrition Bulletin highlights the growing gap between the nutritional standards of food served in school and food brought from home, which could lead to “health inequalities” between groups of children.
BNF research assistant Helena Gibson-Moore drew on findings from the heavily-publicised Leeds University study on school packed lunches, which prompted a heated reaction in UK papers after its publication earlier this year. Commissioned by the Food Standards Agency, the study had found that only a very small proportion of packed lunches met all the nutritional criteria set in the standards for school meals.
“The recently introduced Government standards for school meals in England have generated concern that packed lunches will increasingly lag behind school meals in terms of their nutritional quality and the impact of this in the long term could potentially lead to increased health inequalities,” writes Gibson-Moore.
“This research provides evidence which may be used as a basis for policy makers to encourage health promotion programmes and interventions that educate staff, parents and children in schools about ways to improve the nutritional content of packed lunches.”
School meal standards
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) and School Food Trust, which is an independent, non-departmental public body funded by the Department for Education, do provide some guidance on developing a packed lunch policy. However, it is currently up to each school to decide whether or not to implement a packed lunch policy.
A whole school food policy would encourage schools to instil the ethos of healthier eating and to promote healthy school food as being a central and not a peripheral issue, writes Gibson-Moore.
According to the findings of the Leeds University study, the food types most commonly found in a packed lunch were sandwiches, confectionery, savoury snacks and sweetened drinks.
Only 1.1 per cent of packed lunches met both the food and nutrient-based standards for meals served in schools.
School meal standards place restrictions on foods high in salt, sugar and fat, and also restrict confectionery, savoury snacks and drinks other than water, pure fruit juice or milk.
In 2008 and 2009, nutrient-based standards for 14 nutrients and energy were also phased in. Under these, lunches should provide 35 per cent of the Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) for vitamins A and C, folate, calcium, iron and zinc. In addition, total added sugars and saturated fats should each be not more than 11 per cent of food energy.