Bowlful of Breakfast Benefits

04/08/2017 - 15:31
A hastily abandoned election manifesto proposal by the Conservative Party has thrown the spotlight onto the relative merits of school breakfast versus school lunch.

Many school meal professionals were alarmed when the Conservative Party’s manifesto for the recent general election proposed scrapping funding for universal infant free school meals (UIFSM) and introducing a school breakfast service.

And despite the subsequent post- election abandonment of the policy,discussion and debate about which provides the greater benefit for children has not stopped.

This was certainly the case at the recent Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum Keynote Seminar on ‘Food in Schools and Early Years Settings: Standards, Free School Meals and the Future for Policy’.

Daniel Martin, for instance, from the Education Directorate of the Welsh Government, told the forum about the approach in Wales, which provided breakfasts rather than lunch, and also supported a number of holiday food schemes for children.

“It’s the only centrally funded, free breakfast provision in the UK, and it’s been active for 14 years,” he said. “It’s open to any child who requests a breakfast, irrespective of their qualification for free school meals.”

He claimed that research on attendance, behaviour and attainment suggested children in Year 2 on a free breakfast scheme made an additional two months of progress across reading, writing and maths compared with those in a control group who were not provided with a school breakfast.

“The breakfast costs £95 a child per year in optimum conditions, although staffing costs are comparatively high,” he said.

The claims were largely supported by Christine Farquharson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, who showed the forum comparison studies on the impact of both free school lunches and school breakfasts.

She said the studies showed a much higher impact on Key Stage 1 (ages 5-7) attainment for children taking breakfasts rather than lunches, although there were gains for both. There was, however, less disparity at Key Stage 2 (ages 7-11).

Neither lunches nor breakfasts were shown to have a direct, measurable impact on children’s health or weight because of the problem of determining what children ate outside of school.
But, she added, breakfast clubs did show significant impacts on children’s absences from school and on their behaviour in it. This amounted to pupils on average missing half a day less school over the year and ‘huge improvements’ in teacher-reported behaviour.

However, these effects were not seen among free infant school lunch children, she noted.

Myles Bremner, director of programmes at the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, pointed out, though, that data collection on the impacts of both breakfasts and lunches needed to improve if stakeholders wanted to be in a position in future to demonstrate the value to children of healthy meals.

With the forum following on closely from the general election, a number of contributors took the opportunity to express their hope that the new government would unequivocally commit to school and early years nutrition.

Patricia Mucavele of the Children’s Food Trust (CFT) said: “We have currently got a policy window, an opportunity for a forward-looking vision for what British policy would look lik in order to deliver, not only food, but nutrition security for the next generation.

“We need to build on our successes in transforming food in education settings, using lessons learned to inform the improvement of the out-of-home offer for children and their families.”

She called for the government to invest in a long-term vision, and presented a CFT wish list of actions that included using take-up as a measurement of children’s health outcomes, getting more children and families cooking, clearer food labelling, and encouraging Early Years Settings (EYS) to adopt the nutrition guidelines.

In fact, visions for the future of school and early years food and nutrition was a recurring theme at the event, with presentations on breakfast provision, holiday hunger, catering for allergies, and connecting children with growing and cooking their food.

There were calls for the free school meals system to be “shored up” and even extended, and for children to be kept safe from hunger by expanding the availability of food throughout the day and outside of school hours.

A number of presentations touched on the need for child-oriented food in schools, supermarkets and outside the home to be healthier, with a particular focus on reducing the salt, fat and sugar content.

Mucavele said: “We need to make healthy food choices the easiest choice for children and make healthy eating a social norm.”

She pointed to concerns about the least healthy food being the cheapest and how the placing and pricing of these foods sent the wrong messages.

She concluded by saying she wanted to see a total ban on marketing to children of such foods.

Several other speakers highlighted sugar as a target for action by meals providers.

Rachel Manners of the Diet and Obesity Team at Public Health England pointed out that children in the UK aged from four to 10 years old were still consuming double their recommended daily sugar intake.

Jason O’Rourke, head teacher at Washingbourne Academy, Lincolnshire, who presented on the successful initiatives his school had employed to encourage healthier eating among students, said Amsterdam in the Netherlands was the only place successfully tackling childhood obesity and its strategy included promoting water over sugary drinks.

He said schools should follow this lead and refuse sponsorship from junk food and drink manufacturers.

Mucavele cited the All-Party Parliamentary Group on School Food’s proposal to use money from the sugar tax to fund holiday clubs, which tackle both holiday hunger and social exclusion.

And Lord Mike Storey, the Liberal Democrat spokesman for education, families and young people in the House of Lords, who chaired the forum’s second session, lamented the fact that while secondary schools were not selling fizzy, sugary drinks, they were turning a blind eye to children bringing them in.

There were also several calls in the forum sessions for the School Food Standards to be reviewed and updated, in line with the latest nutrition recommendations and the Eatwell Plate.

Stephanie Wood from School Food Matters highlighted the fact that 3,896 academy schools were exempt from meeting the standards, and insisted that the rules should apply to all schools.

Others called for improvements in the measuring and reporting of health, attainment and behaviour outcomes to help secure future funding for school meals.

Bremner of the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation pointed to cuts to school funding and how this meant that Department for Education advice and guidance on spending was in direct opposition to the procurement demands of healthy school meals.

“There is a divide between the will to tackle healthy eating and the skills on hand to deliver it,” he said. “Some funding needs to be set aside to help measure the impacts of healthy eating, as well as to provide practical hand-holding for schools which need help, particularly now the government will not be funding the NGOs [non- governmental organisations], which until now have provided assistance.”

He also noted there was public support for school meals that providers should leverage in making their arguments for funding.

Tim Baker, the head teacher of Charlton Manor Primary School, London, compared children’s eating to the 47 languages spoken at his school, saying kids needed a “bigger vocabulary of flavours”.

He described the many ways he taught food and nutrition through the curriculum using a garden, beehives, and a school shop among other things.

Schools take the learning out of lunchtime,” he said, adding that he felt there was a willingness in other schools to replicate his examples but that head teachers had to be prepared to allocate the funding needed.

“Create a curriculum budget, not a maths or science budget. The money is there,” he said.

Closing the session, chair Sharon Hodgson MP, the Shadow Minister for Public Health, said she would be taking three important points from the presentations she had heard: “These are that all academies should be bound by the School Food Standards; that operating on RPI (retail price index) is adding pressure to the catering service’s capacity to fund nutritious meals; and that all children should be tested for allergies to eliminate food tolerance problems before looking at ADHD and behavioural issues.

This last point could help to improve the response by caterers to the problem of food allergies, which can be inadequate,” she said.