• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Tuesday 08th September, 2009

Getting the facts straight about the free lunch

UK interest in the value – across a range of health measures – of providing more UK primary and secondary school children with free school meals is focusing on a $33 million pilot program just launched.Flagged in the spring by Schools Secretary Ed Balls, the experiment is so far confined to County Durham in the north and the London Borough of Newham in the south. In a third Midland authority, Wolverhampton, the income threshold for free meals is being raised.The evaluation is being conducted jointly by the UK National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) and the Institute for Fiscal Studies based on a comparison with districts where existing rules are unchanged.Both teams will be relying on the consistency of nutritional standards which this month have been extended from primary schools to the secondary school system.The evaluators are charged with assessing the impact of the pilots on the take-up of school meals and on children’s diet and also with gauging value for money.The NatCen study involves a longitudinal survey of parents and pupils, analysis of administrative data and interviews with school caterers.Outcome measures after one and two years include eating patterns, diet at school and home, child behavior and concentration, body mass index, attainment and authorized and unauthorized absences.Further announcement is expected soon about a parallel case study-based qualitative research exercise drawing on the National Pupil Database held by the Department for Children, Schools and Families.Extension of the nutritional standards already in force in primary schools requires an English school lunch to contain at least one portion of vegetable or salad and a portion of fruit. School canteens must not offer meals outside strict calorie limits and must provide foods with a minimum level of iron, zinc, calcium and vitamins. Salt is to be removed from canteen tables and foods that have too much fat; saturated fat and sugar are not allowed.Drinks are being limited to water, low-fat milk and juice. Schools have been told to use reduced-fat spreads.Publicity surrounding both announcements in The Guardian last week generated scabrous comment about the realities of English provincial life: “What's the use of implementing measures like this in schools when a fish and chip shop 200 yards away opens for the lunchtime, or a mobile chip van parks outside? “Newsagents, supermarkets, and fast-food outlets will happily sell crap to kids from 8am onwards, so what's the point? You would have to do something reminiscent of a totalitarian state to prevent children from slowly killing themselves." There were also reminiscences from the golden age of unidentifiable school dinners: “Isn't it against children's human rights to ban chocolate, crisps and beef-burgers? I'm sure a legal challenge would be successful; after all, who decides what is healthy? “When I was at school, the food was 100% inedible stodge and there were very few overweight pupils. I wasn't fat even though I ate the dinners; maybe it was because I had lots of exercise. I vote for a return to the days of inedible stodge when you were not sure what you were eating. Kids nowadays are so fussy that that will refuse to eat it; combine this with plenty of sports and this will solve the obesity problem at a stroke.”Changes in attitudes to value of free school meals in the UK system continue to redress policies introduced in the 1980s. The 1980 Education Act abolished the minimum nutritional standards for school meals and removed the statutory obligation on LEAs to provide a meals service, requiring them only to provide food for the children of families on supplementary benefit or family income supplement who were eligible for free meals. The decision coincided Commercial Competitive Tendering, which obliged local authorities to choose the most cost efficient service on offer. As a result, private companies took over many school kitchens and persuaded schools to install free-choice cafeteria systems. Entitlement to free meals was further reduced the 1986 Social Security Act.• For a spirited history of the UK school meals system, see the website of former headteacher Derek Gillard.

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