Posted: 20 January 2016

Addressing obesity through school meals

Childhood obesity is a growing issue in the UK disproportionately affecting children who live in deprived areas and contributing to serious long-term health problems. One fifth of children are overweight or obese when they begin school, and this figure increases to one third by the time they leave primary school.

The Government is imminently due to publish its Childhood Obesity Strategy and tomorrow, MPs will debate the strategy in the House of Commons where proposals for new regulations, including a sugar tax and a 9pm watershed for high fat and sugar food adverts, will be debated. 

We believe that the a key part of this debate is around the role that healthy and nutritious free school meals can play in tackling obesity and improving children’s health.

We recommend that the Government explore whether any proceeds from a sugar tax could be reinvested in the provision of healthy free school meals for low income families. 

Children need healthy free school meals 

Through our Fair and Square campaign we made the case for a healthy, balanced diet for children and young people. This can have a direct impact on their overall physical health, as well as having a wider impact.

The role of schools in providing a nutritious meal once a day for pupils is essential in this regard. School meals have an important role to play in making sure children are receiving healthy, nutritional food, which in turn has a significant impact upon concentration, behaviour and ultimately, children’s ability to learn.

Research has also shown that school meals are often healthier than packed lunches, with only one percent of packed lunches meeting the nutritional standards set for school lunches. Responding to a survey for our Food for Thought report, teachers made the following comments to us about the standard of packed lunches that they saw children bringing in:

  • ‘10% or less are healthy, 50% unhealthy, 40% absolutely shocking, consisting ONLY of sugar, salt, dairy, fat.’
  • ‘I have seen a child with a packet of Haribo sweets for his lunch – we had to arrange for the child to have a sandwich. This is not an isolated case.’

'10% or less [packed lunches I see] are healthy, 50% unhealthy, 40% absolutely shocking' - teacher

One teacher told us of the work in their school to ensure interesting, healthy meals were on the menu:‘Our cook works extremely hard to develop interesting meals that are low in fat. We also grow a lot of produce that our children eat.’

However, many families struggle to afford the cost of school meals. One teacher noted: ‘I teach in a deprived area and some families find it difficult to provide healthy but cheap food for their children.’

For these reasons, free school meals are a crucial provision, which help to ensure that many children living in poverty receive at least one full, healthy meal during the day. 

In 2013, the Government announced that from autumn 2014 all children in reception, years 1 and 2 would be entitled to a free school meal. This means an extra 160,000 more poor children have the chance to get a free, nutritious meal at school and marks an historic step forward in the fight against child poverty. However, around 500,000 children in poverty remain ineligible for a free school meals.

A sugar tax and free school meals

We welcome the report Sugar Reduction: The evidence for action from Public Health England, and the recommendation to introduce a price increase of a minimum of 10-20% on high sugar products through the use of a tax or levy such as on full sugar soft drinks, based on the emerging evidence of the impact of such measures in other countries.

However, we believe that it must be ensured that such a measure would not make it harder for families to afford to feed their children. For this reason we recommend that the Government explore whether any proceeds from such a tax (and indeed, perhaps some of the savings which would be expected to accrue to health and social care services) could be reinvested in the provision of healthy meals for low income families. 

In this way, the introduction of a levy like this could be used to make sure that low income families are better able to feed their children, rather than making this a more difficult job for them.

By Sam Royston - Policy team