Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver helped stir attention towards the appallingly inadequate quality of school meals in the UK. Before that, the infamous Turkey Twizzlers were an ordinary, and even favoured, item served in children’s lunches across many schools. Turkey Twizzlers are highly processed foods containing more than 40 different ingredients including pork fat, hydrogenated vegetable oils, colourings, flavourings, wheat starch, rusk, and even sweeteners including aspartame. Shockingly (or not), Turkey Twizzlers contain just 34% turkey. The school lunches contained many such highly processed items. Jamie Oliver first attempted to improve the quality of meals in Kidbrooke Park Primary School, Greenwich in a documentary titled Jamie’s School Dinners. After that in 2005, he launched the ‘Feed Me Better‘ campaign to change the quality of school meals by substituting all junk foods offered to children with fresher, tastier and healthier options in many schools across the UK.jamies_school_dinners

Not surprisingly, healthy school meals have profound and beneficial physical, mental and psychological effects on children. In the United States, the revision of guidelines for school meal plans by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) resulted in an increased consumption of fruits and vegetables in elementary and middle school children. According to the study, children were able to make better choices in meal selection and consumption. Thus, improving school meals positively affects the children’s overall diet quality a
nd food choices, even outside school hours. A different US study also found that plate waste from school meals appeared to drop continually proving that children’s choices and acceptability of meals have improved. The consumption of a better diet quality during childhood – including higher consumption of fruits and vegetables – in place of less healthy foods will most likely be carried into adulthood and thus protect against the development of various chronic diseases including diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Undoubtedly, investing in better school meals will reduce healthcare costs in the future.

From another perspective, appropriate nutrition in children is known to have beneficial effects on brain and cognitive development. Dietary fat and fruit and vegetable intakes were both shown to be important for academic performance – more specifically, nutrients such as energy and protein, iron, zinc, copper, selenium, vitamin A, folate, and unsaturated fats. Better dietary quality of children, including dietary variety and adequacy, has been associated with improved school performance among fifth-graders in Canada. The outcomes were independent of the socioeconomic status, suggesting that a better diet quality alone could impact school performance among children, regardless of other external factors. In Greenwich borough of London, positive changes to school meal plans resulted in an improved performance in English and science classes and dropped authorised absence rates among primary school students. Furthermore, a relationship between childhood overweight and poorer school performance is apparent; poorer diet quality and insufficient physical exercise are both important factors that negatively affect school performance among children. Thus, implementing appropriate school meal programs will likely impact the children’s present school performance in addition to their physical health and wellbeing.

school-dinner-006The latest school meal standards for England developed in 2014 include:

  • High-quality meat, poultry or oily fish
  • Bread, cereals or potatoes
  • At least one portion of vegetable/salad as accompaniment each day
  • At least 3 different fruits and 3 different vegetables per week
  • No more than 2 portions of deep-fried, battered or breadcrumb-coated food per week
  • No more than 2 portions of pastry foods per week
  • Emphasis on water as the drink of choice and limiting
    • A portion of fruit juice to 150 ml
    • Added sugars or honey to other drinks to 5%
  • No drinks with added sugars, crisps, chocolates or sweets in school meals or vending machines

The newly implemented standards have been shown to increase children’s intakes of vegetables, fibre, vitamin C, vitamin A and folate. Hypothetically, promoting diets that are lower in salt, sugar and fats and higher in fruits and vegetables and complex carbohydrates and increased physical activity all positively impact future health outcomes for children of all ages. Whether or not children’s future health in the UK will improve remains to be seen, but for now it must be said, the UK has come a long way from Turkey Twizzlers.

 

lauraLaura Jabri, MSc

Laura has a masters in Clinical and Public Health Nutrition from University College London and a bachelors degree from the American University of Beirut. Her interests include obesity, maternal and child nutrition, undernutrition in developing countries and food sustainability solutions.  Tweet her @laurajabri