I remember when I was at school the content of my packed lunch wasn’t an issue. The only issue I had was getting more into it, and I’m not talking about apples, bananas or pears.
I also remember the dinner ladies were particularly fearsome. You had to finish your lunch or else they’d put you in lunch jail (they didn’t, although it felt like it. And my parents were never too happy with me bringing food home). For me, school meals were a no-no. They always looked like mash potato and tasted like chicken, even if they weren’t. Packed lunches were a safer option, and as such my parents had free rein on what they could pack me off to school with.
Fast forward 20 or so years and the landscape has completely changed. Jamie Oliver marched to Downing Street on the back of a major petition over the standard of school meals. It certainly acted as a catalyst and a wake-up call for the campaigns and calls-to-action you read in the press and see on TV on an ever increasing basis.
As if to signify the change in attitude over what today’s children consume at school, the first ever International School Meals Day took place earlier this month. Since 2010 both sides of the Atlantic have shared examples of policy and good practice on how to promote healthy eating in schools, and so International School Meals Day was born. They key aims of the awareness day were:
• Raise awareness of the importance of the nutritional quality of school meal programs worldwide
• Emphasise the connection between healthy eating, education and better learning
• Connect children around the world to foster healthy eating habits and promote well-being in schools
• Share success stories of school meal programs around the globe
• Highlight research activities in school meal programs around the globe
• Raise awareness of the hunger and poverty issues being addressed through school feeding programmes
Backed by a number of global organisations including the British Dental Health Foundation, bringing the issue of good nutrition for children to the fore has multiple health benefits for children. Obesity is at an all-time high, and the level of tooth decay in children shows no sign of abating.
I spoke to Dr Nigel Carter OBE, Chief Executive of the British Dental Health Foundation, who said: “School meals can be extremely hazardous to oral health, particularly if parents are happy to satisfy their child’s sweet tooth and send them to school with fizzy drinks, sweets and chocolate bars. Children aren’t born with a sweet tooth, it’s picked up over time due to their early years diet.
“School meals have in the past been criticised for being unhealthy, and that is why International School Meals Day is a great way to bring the issue to light. Meals have significantly improved over the last 10 years, yet there is always more we can do.
“The odd chocolate snack or fizzy drink is absolutely fine. It’s worth remembering one of the Foundation’s key messages – cut down on how often you have sugary foods and drinks. Oral health problems are caused by frequent consumption of these types of foods, so if children have these maybe once or twice a week during mealtimes and keep up a good oral hygiene routine, it will limit the damage their teeth will suffer.”
Sharon Hodgson, MP and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on School Food said: “Many countries face the serious and growing problem of childhood obesity and the further health issues this can cause. In all of those cases, the biggest asset at the disposal of Governments trying to tackle this problem is the education system.
“International School Meals Day is therefore a welcome and necessary initiative, seeking to bring experts and professionals from both sides of the Atlantic together to highlight the importance of good quality school meals, and sharing best practice on engaging children and their families in improving their eating habits. I am sure the day will go from strength to strength in the coming years.”
School meals should be a good thing and an opportunity to improve the wellbeing of children in the UK but they have to be healthy and nutritious. This is what needs to happen if I’m to give my kids school meals, otherwise they’ll be on the pack ups, just as I was.