On 17th September 2013, the government announced that all children from Reception to Year Two will be entitled to a free school meal. For Henry Dimbleby (@Henry_Leon) and John Vincent (JohnV_Leon), founders of The School Food Plan (which I have previously discussed in my post, ‘Is lunch the key to our success’), these are exciting times and evidence that ‘making a noise’ can pay off. Indeed, on their website (www.schoolfoodplan.com) they state that this initiative will, “help revolutionise our children’s diets and means that millions more will have access to healthier, tastier food, making them happier, more fulfilled and better at concentrating throughout the day.”
It suddenly feels that for the first time, in a long time, plans to help improve our children’s diets and tackle childhood obesity are finally coming to fruition. Saying this however, providing free school meals will only be of benefit if the meals provided are better than the packed lunches they are replacing. You only have to have had half an ear on Jamie Oliver’s television documentary, ‘Jamie’s School Dinners’, which was aired in 2005, to question whether school meals will indeed be nutritionally more adequate. However, The School Food Plan argues that even a school meal of mediocre quality is nutritionally superior to most packed lunches, where it has been found that only 1% currently meet the nutritional standards that currently apply to school food. School meals do seem to have come a long way and I am sure with the current throng of high profile celebrities and health professionals pushing the cause, things will only continue to improve.
However, whilst enabling children to eat a nutritious, hot main meal at lunch is incredibly important for the health, behaviour and learning capabilities of those children, for me it is only half the battle. Educating children on why eating well is important as well as giving them the skills and inspiration to continue to do so later in life when they are more independent is fundamental to improving the health of our nation. Sadly, achieving this is not as simple as one might think. You only have to look at the low success rates of the raft of public health initiatives that have been implemented up and down the country to see what I mean. Why are these seemingly well thought out and inspired plans not working?
I do not think there is a simple answer to this question, but I do feel that our unhealthy relationship with food stems primarily from the societal changes that have happened within the UK, over the past few generations. By this I mean the demise of the family network, increasing single-parent families, more instances of both parents having to go out to work, not prioritising sitting around the table to eat, the rise in public transport use and computer games, a decline in cooking classes within school…. the list goes on. Simply telling people therefore that eating an ‘apple a day will help keep the doctor away’ really is just a waste of time.
It was with some excitement therefore that I came across a campaign called ‘Food Dudes’, an award-winning set of programmes helping children and families to make healthier choices (www.fooddudes.co.uk). What I like about this initiative is that it uses behavioural science and fun to improve children’s eating habits and physical activity. The programme is based on current research in the area of behaviour change and incorporates more than 50 principles and processes, and it seems to be working. Indeed the evidence from the project seems to show that it is highly effective, regardless of location, family income and social status. At the moment, the programme is only operational in Wales and the Midlands but hopes to be rolled out across London in the near future – watch this space!