Should schools do more to tackle Britain’s obesity crisis?

Written by Katherine Nicholls
Katherine Nicholls
Nutritionist Resource Content Team

Ensuring our children eat a balanced diet can come with a unique set of challenges. What is right for our child? Is their school responsible for helping with lunchtime nutrition? Following the launch of the government's Childhood Obesity plan in 2016, we surveyed parents to understand more about these challenges. 

Are schools providing enough information on lunchbox nutrition?

76% of parents feel schools aren’t providing enough information on lunchbox nutrition. Nutritionist Resource surveyed over 1,000 parents of children aged four to 11 to uncover the challenges they face when providing a balanced diet for their family. The 2016 Childhood Obesity plan outlined by the government revealed that almost a third of children aged two to 15 are overweight or obese, highlighting a real need for change.

We asked a range of questions in our survey, but the most shocking statistic was that 76% of parents feel their children’s schools do not provide sufficient nutritional information.

Whose responsibility is it?

If parents are packing a lunchbox for their children, is it up to the school to provide them with nutritional information?

We spoke to Lindsey, an ex-dinner lady and mother of three, to get her thoughts on where the responsibility lies:

“I think it’s ultimately the parent’s responsibility if they are preparing a packed lunch for their kids - however, I do think schools could do more. Personally, I used to cook everything from scratch for my family and spent time researching nutrition, but this has always been an interest of mine.

“I remember in my days as a dinner lady (in the 90s) seeing a brother and sister opening their lunch boxes to reveal nothing but a doughnut and a can of coke. That was their lunch.

“At the time, there was nothing the school could do about it. Now I feel times have changed and we know how important nutrition is for children, so schools have an obligation to do more.”

When asked ‘what do you find most challenging about providing a healthy lunchbox?’ 43% of parents said fussy eating, 19% said convenience/time and 18% pointed to the cost of healthy food. Other challenges included school restrictions and a lack of nutrition knowledge.

As a society we have become more aware of the role nutrition has on our health and yet childhood obesity is increasing. There are a multitude of reasons for this, and yes, the responsibility does lie with parents - but there are challenges to face and having the government step in can only be beneficial.

What are schools doing?

When it comes to school dinners, schools are obligated to meet a statutory school meal standard. This means it needs to provide at least a third of a child’s nutritional requirements. Ofsted says schools must have a policy for packed lunches, but there are no laws in place saying they must abide by the same standard.

This means some schools may discuss lunchbox restrictions and tips, but perhaps do not have as much information about child nutrition as parents would like. A 2016 study carried out by Leeds University found that 98% of packed lunches are deemed 'unhealthy' and do not meet the same standard school dinners adhere to. To us, this is a clear indication that lunchbox policies need reviewing.

There are many schools however that are already doing their part. Looking at the 24% of respondents who said they were happy with their school’s offering of information, what was it they provided?

  • “Pictures and examples of a healthy lunchbox.”
  • “A pre-printed chart showing what each group of food is valued at - in regards to calories/fat/sugars etc and estimate of calories recommended for young children.”
  • “Easy recipes that are healthy and easy to cook with leftovers. Not too expensive. They make it so much fun.”

What the government are doing

Experts, including Jamie Oliver, were disappointed with the government’s Childhood Obesity Plan and it was described as ‘weak’ and ‘watered down’ by experts in a BBC article.

When discussing the role schools play in children’s nutritional health, the plan stated the following:

“From September 2017, we will introduce a new voluntary healthy rating scheme for primary schools to recognise and encourage their contribution to preventing obesity by helping children to eat better and move more.”

They also mentioned an annual competition to recognise schools with the most innovative and impactful projects to help tackle childhood obesity.

The issue many have with these comments, and others within the document, is that much of the plan relies on voluntary involvement, with little being actively enforced as mandatory.

What do parents want?

We asked survey respondents to share what it is they would like to see from schools:

  • 61% wanted Recommended Daily Allowance and general nutritional guidelines.
  • 29% wanted lunchbox ideas.
  • 6% wanted to know more about portion sizes.

Comments from survey respondents included the following:

  • “More guidelines on portion sizes!”
  • “I would like more information on how my kids can get a balanced diet. I want to know what health benefits fruits and vegetables have and which ones are the best to feed my kids.”
  • “I would like to know what foods give slow-release energy to keep my child bright for the rest of the day.”
  • “The daily allowance for children as well as school restrictions. Also beneficial would be nutritional information of food for children.”
  • “Healthy ideas for kids that they would embrace.”

How can schools provide more nutritional information?

We spoke to Maria Mitchell, a registered nutritional therapist, to get her insight.

How do you think schools could improve their offering of information?

We know that the foundations of healthy eating need to be laid down in childhood and getting this right will set children on the right path for life. Schools place so much emphasis on results but don't seem to appreciate that good nutrition and hydration can have a major impact on behaviour, concentration and basic skills such as reading and writing.

If schools do not educate or place any value on the importance of good nutrition then how can we expect our children to? Schools need to be showing good practice when it comes to nutrition; educating children about where food comes from, growing vegetables, reintroducing cookery lessons, looking at the science of nutrition and the impact of food on the body.

If schools put as much focus into ensuring they offered good nutrition and education about healthy eating as they do on SATs results then I wonder what outcomes we would see.

How can parents educate themselves on healthy eating for their family?

One of the most important things you can do for your children is to provide them with a nutritious diet, but we live in a world where we are bombarded with advice about what we should and shouldn't be eating, so it’s no wonder that parents can get confused about healthy eating and what counts as a ‘good diet’.

My advice is to keep it simple. Aim to eat whole foods, plenty of fruit and vegetables, good fats and proteins. It doesn't need to be complicated. Children don't need sugary snack bars - a simple piece of fruit or a vegetable will be far more beneficial. They don't need to drink squash or fruit juice, water is far more hydrating and will save their teeth. Avoid packeted and processed foods. Cook with your children and make it a habit to eat together each evening.

Children will mirror what you as a parent do, so if they see you eating a balanced diet then they will model this. And of course, if you want to educate yourself further or feel you need more support then seek the advice of a qualified nutritionist.

Our campaign

Here at Nutritionist Resource, our ultimate aim is to improve access to knowledge and professional advice for everyone, including parents.

This is why we make searching for a nutritionist quick and easy whilst offering a wealth of information to help you make healthier choices for yourself and your family.

Our 2016 Loveable Lunchboxes campaign neatly brought this all together in one place to help make healthy eating for kids a breeze. We surveyed parents to find out what they struggle with and responded with a range of supportive materials, from blogs and fact sheets to infographics and posters. To promote what a balanced lunchbox really looks like and spread our message, we also sent our poster to local schools.

All of our information was created with the help of our members, who are nutrition professionals. Just like us, they are passionate about the way we eat as a nation and ensuring future generations are both healthy and happy. You can find out more about our mission as a brand on our About us page and get in touch with a nutrition professional for tailored support. 

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