A national study by the School Food Trust - the first of its kind in secondary schools since compulsory nutritional standards came into full effect in 2009 - shows that the proportion of young people on school meals who had chips for their lunch was down from 43% in 2004 to 7% in 2011.
It also shows that almost all schools had ditched the sale of chocolate, sweets and crisps completely since the introduction of the legislation (although almost three quarters of students having packed lunches were still bringing these types of foods into school), and that the average school meal being eaten by secondary school pupils contained around a third less saturated fat, fat, salt and sugar in 2011 than it did in 2004.
However, as the number of secondary school students having school meals continues to rise, the research also shows that schools still need to do even more to encourage them to fuel up well for their afternoon lessons. Despite huge improvements to what’s on the menu, teenagers are still not choosing food combinations that will give them enough energy and nutrients to stay alert all afternoon. Whilst the number of pupils having fruit, veg or salad with their lunch has doubled since the legislation came into force this still needs to increase much further, and teens are still not eating enough of their ‘five-a-day’ as part of their school meal.
The charity will outline a series of recommendations arising from the findings in the coming weeks, after completing research on the approaches to food being taken by academy schools.
Senior nutritionist Jo Nicholas, who led the secondary school research, said: “These findings show that even just 12 to 18 months after the final standards came into effect, as many secondary schools were getting to grips with the changes, the legislation was already making a significant impact - not just for what was on the menu but also for what teenagers were actually eating. Instead of ‘chips with everything’ we’re starting to see signs of ‘chips now and again’.
“It’s also very clear that it’s tougher for secondary schools to encourage students to make better choices than it is for primary schools, often because there are such a huge range of options on the menu. Caterers need to keep innovating to get teenagers eating even more fruit and veg, and to encourage them to have combinations of foods that will fuel them up properly.
“Ultimately, this research shows the really positive impact of the standards on the food on offer to young people at school, and on what they actually eat, in a short space of time.”
The study looked at:
· Fruit and veg: Schools still need to do more to get students eating fruit and veg. In 2004, only 59% of secondary schools had veg or salad on the menu every day. Now, almost all do (98%). The number of pupils taking a piece of fruit or a portion of veg or salad with their lunch has doubled since the standards were introduced, and almost three quarters of students now have at least some vegetables, pulses, fruit or fruit juice as part of their lunch – a sign that caterers are innovating to get fruit and vegetables into all sorts of dishes. However, the average number of portions being taken with lunch across all pupils was just 0.8 – and this must be improved
· Starchy foods cooked in fat or oil – like chips, Yorkshire puddings and garlic bread
More than three quarters of schools (77%) used to offer foods cooked in fat or oil every day – now it’s just over half of schools that do this (53%). Now these sorts of foods are being served on around 3.5 days per week, down from 4.2 days per week. The standard says these foods should not be on offer more than three times per week, so the caterers are making real progress. Most importantly, fewer pupils are eating these foods - the percentage fell from 50% of pupils in 2004 to 17% in 2011
· Chips: the proportion of pupils having chips for their lunch was way down – now at 7% of pupils, compared with 43% of pupils in 2004. Also, chips were on the menu far less often - on 17% of days in 2011 compared with 80% of days in 2004 – and most chips were being cooked in healthier ways. Potatoes cooked in oil were on the menu on 59% of days in 2011 compared with 89% of days in 2004. This is much better, but still too often
· Sweets, chocolate and crisps have almost completely disappeared. In 2004, three quarters of schools offered confectionary and crisps every day as part of the lunch menu. Now, almost all schools have ditched them completely
· Cereal bars: often just as high in sugar as confectionary, these are still being served when they shouldn’t be on offer – something that needs to be made clearer to caterers
· Pizza: in 2004, two-thirds of secondary schools used to offer pizza every day – that’s now down to only half, , and pupils are actually eating pizza less often
· Water: in 2004, only three quarters of schools (68%) offered water as a drink at lunchtime – now almost all schools do (98%)
· Nutrient content: now, the average school meal is more packed full of nutrients than it was in 2004. The average meal being eaten now contains around 50% more vitamin A, and around a third less saturated fatty acids, salt, sugar and total fat than it did in 2004.
The charity’s chairman, Rob Rees, said: “Regulation may not always be popular, but evidence doesn’t come much clearer of the difference it can make in tackling poor diet – one of the most serious and costly public health issues we face.
“If we want our schools to be places where children’s minds and bodies are well-nourished, it’s abundantly clear from this research that the standards should be the very minimum we expect for food in all schools.”
Data were collected from 11,697 pupils in 80 secondary schools in England. A further 1823 pupils who brought packed lunches or other food from outside school were also recruited. Caterers provided information relating to catering policies and practices. Head teachers were interviewed about school food policies and finances.
The full findings can be downloaded at www.schoolfoodtrust.org.uk/surveysandmonitoring#secondarystudy