Health campaigners are advocating a complete overhaul of the school dinner system which should switch its focus away from cheap, processed, junk food to colourful fresh produce and healthier alternatives in a bid to stave off rising childhood obesity.
Lorraine Tulloch, programme lead, at Obesity Action Scotland speaks with PBUK to explain how changing the culture and environment of the typical school dinner and canteen set up is key to making a long-term sustainable switch from processed junk food to kids actually wanting to choose fresh fruit and vegetables.
The organisation has just published a report looking at school dinners in primary schools across Scotland and is advocating for seismic shift in canteen habits to move away from typical menu items like hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza and chips to dinners loaded with healthy fresh produce.
“This is all to do with price and the fact that decisions are made at local authority level which often means they try to buy in bulk. It’s also about the style of eating that we’ve developed and the way that we tend to cook,” she says.
“To make it easier for school dinners to be produced en mass they have tend to go for the processed foods but also I think it’s a reflection at large of what we’re eating as a nation.
“They don’t want to waste food so they are offering food to children that they know they’ll take, but what we’re asking for is to think about how they can slowly turn that around and change what children accept and what they want to eat.”
As any parent will testify, getting a child to “eat their greens” is an age-old adage but what Obesity Action Scotland is calling for is much more complex.
This idea is to change the style of eating within schools and even investigate ways to engage children in the food they eat and the environment in which it is eaten.
Two thirds of primary school pupils in Scotland eat school meals. School meals provide a unique opportunity to drive the dietary change we need to see in Scotland and act as an exemplar for healthy eating.
“It will have to be a slow process because we don’t want to end up with a load of waste as a consequence of this, but we do certainly want to see a change and we’re specifically asking for using unprocessed or minimally processed foods wherever possible and prioritising fruit, vegetable, soups and salads over items like puddings.
Obesity in Action Scotland’s report found that the school dining experience varies dramatically across Scotland, but all too often children are offered puddings high in sugar and menus regularly offer processed foods. It also found that Scottish primary schools serve puddings more often than soup and these puddings have an average of 14g of sugar.
“It’s this whole habit of serving a so-called much healthier version of a hot dog, burger and a pizza, but it’s still processed. And the kids think that it’s OK to eat that because the school is giving it to them and earlier in the morning the school has told them all about healthy eating and then they go to the canteen at lunchtime and that’s what they get,” adds Tulloch.
“And that’s reinforcing a habit. We want to find ways to engage children so that they want to eat the good stuff; fruit, vegetables, salads and soups.
“This is not about force feeding, that will not change our diet as a nation, we need to find ways so that we and our children value things like fresh produce, celebrate them and that is what children choose to eat rather than wanting the other items.”
Physical environment of school canteen
Creating a positive physical and social environment for school meals can have a major impact as well, adds Tulloch.
Living in “obesogenic environments” where relative inactivity and overconsumption of energy dense foods is too available, affordable and accepted is fuelling the current obesity crisis,she says. Although personal choices are important, obesogenic environments create dangerously high levels of obesity in the population and have a powerful effect on a child’s diet, physical activity levels and obesity.
“A lot of that is about the physical and social environment and about how children are fed in schools, like food being ladled out to them from a counter. Maybe it should be more about laying food out in the middle of the table, about the amount of colour, making food attractive with textures and tastes. It’s all about these kinds of aspects as well.
“There has been quite a lot of kids eating programmes on radio and TV in the last while and we’ve noticed a change in the tone from the people calling in. It’s much more supportive.
“We’re the kind of organisation which typically gets told “don’t tell us what to do” or “nanny state” accusations and all that, but we’ve noticed that generally people realise a change is needed for school meals and there is definitely much more awareness that something needs to be done.
“Parents have got to want this to happen as well, not just us as an organisation because we certainly don’t want children to be walking away from school meals because we know they are probably a healthier options than the packed lunches they would be provided with, so we don’t want the change to go in that direction either.”
Supermarket price promotions
Part of Obesity Action Scotland campaigns also extends to how food is promoted in-store and looking at the often misused mantra that “fresh produce is more expensive than processed food.”
“We are also campaigning for price promotions within supermarkets to be restricted but I accept that the whole fresh produce costs more than junk food is a bit of a myth but it’s not just about price, it’s about knowing what to do with the food and where it’s situated in stores and what people are led to buy.
“You might find some fruit and vegetables for instance may be cheaper in store but they are not promoted as much, so it doesn’t have the same level of awareness. They are not advertised or marketed as much as other items and all of this influences the choices we make when we go shopping.
“We campaign to change the environment that surrounds us everyday. We know cooking skills etc are important but if we don’t have the environment right in the first place, we are fighting against a system and we want that system to be the easiest and cheapest option to buy fruit, veg and other fresh produce and all the healthier foods.”