Transforming School Food SHA Evidence 2005

Turning the Tables: Transforming School Food


Recommendation for the development and implementation of revised school lunch standards.

Socialist Health Association Submission to Consultation

We welcome the Government strategy and commend their commitment to improving the nutritional standard of school food. The proposals are bold and comprehensive and we hope that these measures will contribute to a reduction in the rate of obesity, heart disease, cancer and diabetes in future generations.

We fully recognise that changing the eating habits of children, and teenagers in particular, is a massive challenge. We support the provision of choice and variety in school food. We recognise that the standards need to be a goal that is worked towards steadily by caterers, and achieving them will take time.

We note the damage done to generations of children by short sighted economies in the school meals service and the huge costs which will accrue to the NHS and other services over the next 50 years. We hope that the introduction of health impact assessment to the policy making process will avoid any similar disaster in the future and that the Government will follow through with other measures which may improve the diet of the adult population.

We have some doubts as to whether Ofsted is the best placed organisation to monitor these dietary changes and whether it should do this on its own. We consider that the issue of school meals must be seen in the context both of a whole school approach to healthy eating and, perhaps even more important, of a whole school approach to health and wellbeing being promoted by the Healthy Schools programme. And such approaches themselves must be seen in the context of a community wide approach to food and nutrition led by the PCTs in their key health promotional role. We see PCTs therefore as having a key role in monitoring dietary changes within their communities including in schools.

Implementation of 14 Nutrient Based Standards

We have one specific proposal to make with regard to the panel’s recommendation 19 – “Further tools and guidance need to be developed, tested, and made available as early in the implementation phase as possible. The DfES should take a lead on this.”

We believe that if our proposal is adopted it will help caterers both to monitor their progress towards meeting the nutrient based standards and give them a useful analytical tool which will help them to achieve these standards. It should also help, in a positive way, to fully engaging ingredient suppliers in the process of implementation.

The problem:

Paragraph 2.11 (page 31) states that “the standards are intended to apply to all food provided in the school cafeterias and dinning rooms at lunchtime (not just the set menu).”

The problem, as we see it, with the current proposal for analysing sample menus on the basis of an ‘average lunch over a five day period’, is a lack of clarity of how an ‘average lunch’ is determined. It is not at all clear whether the contribution made by a particular food on the menu will be weighted in proportion to the number of portions of this food actually prepared and sold.

On a recent visit by school governors to the school kitchens at Chorlton High School in Manchester we were told that the kitchen prepares 150 portions of the ‘main meal dishes’ each day: 50 of each of three choices. The school has 1500 children aged 11-16 and the canteen operates a cash cafeteria system. Only a very small number bring a packed lunch and children are not permitted to leave the school site during lunchtime. It was clear that the majority of children, over a thousand, are not eating the ‘main dishes’ but the ‘daily choices’.

To see if this situation was reflected across the country we conducted a telephone survey of school kitchens in a variety of state secondary schools reflecting different types of school, which had a wide spread of academic achievement results.

All the schools surveyed prepared hot nutritional main meal dishes, as well as having other food such as pizza, burgers, sandwiches and sausage rolls available daily.

The results are attached in table form, and show that a similar picture is indeed the case in most secondary schools around the country. That is, only a small proportion of the pupils are actually eating the main meal options.

The nutrient based standards will be worthless if they are applied to an idealised choice that only a few children are actually eating, while the majority may choose to eat cheese and tomato pizza every day. It is essential that the actual food being eaten by the children as a whole, not just the range available on a printed menu, will eventually meet the nutrient standards set. Though we fully recognise that the standard cannot be applied to each meal and each child, and some children will make better choices than others.

The panel has also recognised [paragraph 2.27 page 36] that school lunches could not be considered in isolation to other food available in schools.

At Chorlton High the cafeteria is open at morning break time and sells a variety of snacks prepared on site. The school has staggered lunch breaks so children will have lunch between one hour and two hours after morning break. Some children will fill up on cheesy bagels or iced buns at break and then use the 30 minutes of lunchtime to socialise.

We believe our proposal will ensure that all the food being provided by school can contribute to meeting the standards, and that monitoring is greatly simplified and very accurate.

The Solution:

We recognise the expertise of school caterers in developing new recipes that increase the nutrient value of the food. The current proposal to analyse the recipes in a sample menu will be complex, as each new recipe has to be analysed and referenced. A system that monitors the ingredients purchased would be far simpler to implement and cheaper to develop, as well as being more accurate.

The nutrient content of the food served in school will be a sum of the nutrient content of the ingredients used to prepare these foods.

A software database could be developed to input the reference values for the ingredients. This could be pre-loaded with common ingredients with a facility to add ingredients as necessary.

Reference data is readily available on the average nutrient content of fresh ingredients such as fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. The panel has indicating that the Food Standards Agency will take a lead role in supplying this data.

All packaged food will already be labelled, to the criteria set by the Food Standards Agency, with the nutritional content information. Any additional information required such as vitamin and mineral content could be obtained from a large manufacturer, who, given the bulk purchasing power of most school caterers, would probably be happy to co-operate.

We would be keen not to disadvantage small local suppliers such as a local baker of quality bread products. They may be unable to supply a full nutritional analysis themselves. It would still be possible, if they supplied an ingredient list with proportions used, for the nutrient content to be calculated by the software from the raw ingredients used by the local supplier.

Each unit catering manager has easy access to information regarding the quantity of each ingredient that has been purchased and the time frequency for re-ordering. The data on the average weekly usage for each ingredient would therefore be very easy for the software to calculate.

The number of children eating school food as opposed to bringing a packed lunch is also known. It is therefore a simple matter to calculate the nutrient content of an ‘average lunch over a 5 day period’. (Which would include break time food where this is provided by the school caterer).

[There would be an anomaly for the oil purchased for deep fat frying, which is not actually consumed by the children, and an adjustment could be made for this, adding a %, based on data for the fat content normally absorbed in deep fat frying. Though we note that the panel is clearly hoping that schools move away from this cooking method.]

Food wasted would have no visibility in the system, though this would be the case for any system.

The software could have several very useful additional functions:

  • It could easily calculate how far off meeting each standard a caterer was and track progress over time. We recognise that some caterers will be starting with a greater disadvantage due to the present tastes of the children they serve. We are particularly keen that progress towards meeting the standards is recognised and rewarded. We do not want catering ‘league tables’.
  • It could have a reporting function allowing caterers to check which ingredients were contributing, to the greatest degree, to any of the nutrient based standards. For instance, if a school was trying to meet the requirement for saturated fat to be no more than 11% of energy intake and was currently running at 16%: The database might give information that cheese was contributing 45% of the total saturated fat content. The caterers could then use this information to adjust recipes, and choices available, to decrease this ingredient and, for instance, increase tuna in sandwiches and pasta dishes. Similarly, if it was found that soya flour was a useful source of folic acid, then this ingredient might be incorporated into some more recipes.
  • A ‘forecasting’ function could be incorporated which would allow catering managers to see what the result of making adjustment to ingredients would make to their progress. The database would contain information for products and ingredients not currently used by all schools, so comparisons could be made between different suppliers of, for instance, bread mixes.
  • It would be easy for the database to be updated with new reference values as suppliers changed the nutritional content of their products. It would be hoped that the suppliers would be usefully engaged in helping caterers meet the new standards. We believe there would be real incentives for a supplier of a product such as pizza bases, for instance, to decrease the sodium content and increase the fibre content of their product, if this system was introduced. Once more nutrient rich product lines have been developed this might have a knock-on effect to food supplied to the general public through supermarkets.

The advantages of this system are simplicity, accuracy, cost of development, and the full engagement of the food industry as a whole in the process.

The main disadvantage for caterers is also how it accurately reflects not just what is being offered, but also what the children are actually choosing and eating. On a personal note, as one of the governors who visited Chorlton High kitchens, it was clear to me that the unit catering manger was a dedicated and skilled individual who is fully committed to improving the nutritional standards of the food served. She and her staff were battling against a culture of teenagers craving fatty and sugary foods. Healthy options, that would easily meet the nutrient standards, were always available in this school. The challenge is to find ways of getting the children to choose them. This will, as the panel recognises, involve a whole school educational approach and necessitate the need to engage parents in the process of influencing their children’s choices.

It may prove to be a harder challenge to meet the 14 nutrient based standards on this basis, but it is the only meaningful way of implementing the standards, and therefore really making a difference to the health of future generations.

Prepared by Zoe Sharma

On Behalf of the Socialist Health Association

Survey of hot main dish consumption in secondary schools:

School Type Number of ChoicesOf Main Dish Total number of portions of main meal dishes prepared each day. Number of pupils on the school role(approx)
Babington Community Technology College Leicester 11-16 mixed 2 80 900
Benton Park School Leeds 11-18 mixed 2 120 1200
Chorlton High School Manchester 11-16 mixed 3 150 1500
Gordano School Bristol 11-18 mixed 2 120 1700
Highbury Fields School Islington, London 11-18 Girls 2 200 780
Holywells High School Ipswich 11-16 mixed 5 165 1000
Manor Church of England School York 11-16 mixed 5 50 680
Queen Katherine School Kendal 11-18 mixed 3 175 1300
Speedwell Technology College Bristol 11-18 mixed 3 72 1000
St. Thomas the Apostle College Southwark, London 11-16 Boys 2 100 700
Waverley School, Small Heath, Birmingham 11-16 mixed 4 120 700
Wheatley Park School Oxford 11-18 mixed 2 60 800