Kids’ school lunch is still junk

Date: 06/09/2016 Written by: Kelly 5 minutes to read.

Recent research has found that just 1.6% of primary school children's packed lunches meet nutritional standards, with over half of packed lunches containing too many sweet and savoury snacks or sugary drinks. There is no shortage of awareness of and efforts to change childhood obesity and poor diet, so why do children's packed lunches still contain so much junk?

Back to school week and the research paper hitting our desks this week is about children's lunchboxes. Parents are sending their pride and joy off to school with the latest Disney box or Becky and LoLo satchel loaded with junk food, despite high profile awareness campaigns and school terms dedicated to food and good nutrition.

The Leeds University study commissioned by Flora, published today found just 1.6% of packed lunches for primary school children met tough nutritional standards set for their classmates eating in the school canteen. I'll say it again because 1.6% is quite shocking. If you consider that about half of all primary school pupils take a packed lunch to school, this is a lot of kid's eating poorly five days of the week.

The study found that only 1 in 5 lunchboxes contained any vegetables or salad, while 52%-60% contained too many sweet and savoury snacks, or sugary drinks (42%), leading to high levels of saturated fat, sugar and salt and not enough minerals and vitamins. Few packed lunches met the standards for energy (12%), vitamin A (17 %), iron (26%) or zinc (16%), due to the lack of fresh salad and vegetables, the dearth of non-processed meat or fish as well as the lack of whole-grain bread.

What is going wrong? Are parents not clued up on nutrition? Is cost driving decisions? Are parents too busy? Are they not worried about their children's diets? Childhood obesity and poor diet first came to the nation's attention about a decade ago. We have seen adverts, programmes, school curriculum changes, new products to the market and a very enthusiastic and motivated Jamie Oliver championing the cause but the improvement in a decade is only fractional and the pace of change has been far too slow. Just 17% of children eat vegetables and salad and this study found that this has not altered since 2006. On the plus side, there is no doubt that the wealth of information on sugar in sweetened drinks may have had an impact on the reduction in the numbers in lunchboxes. Parents are switching to sugar free drinks or water.


A few years ago we spent time shadowing parents on their food shop to find out what influences buying decisions and we uncovered a few important insights. Firstly, marketing is quite powerful. Parents are influenced by 2 for 1 deals and 3 for 2. Of course, biscuits, crisps and chocolate are always on 'deal'. It is therefore not surprising to hear that 60% of the lunchboxes examined featured a packet of crisps.

But the thing about crisps, chocolate and biscuits is that they don't go off in less than a week. And this is the issue. We hear a lot of people say that fruit and veg is expensive, but when you delve a bit deeper it isn't the cost of buying fruit and veg that makes it expensive, it's the expense many people feel when they have to throw it away after a few days because it goes off. You can't say the same for a chocolate hob nob. We are also too busy to go to the shops more than once a week so we buy food that will keep.

Another important insight that has stayed with me over the last few years is the trust parents place in brands. I remember asking a mother why she brought some cakes with Disney characters on the front of the box. She told me they were for her kids. I asked if the characters on the front prompted her to purchase the product and how did she feel about her children eating what was inside. She told me that the product must be good for kids or 'not too bad' because there was Disney characters on the box and Disney was a good company who would not allow children to eat 'bad' products. Anything 'child friendly' must be good for the little darlings.

What now?

The contents of over 300 lunchboxes were examined for this study. Three scored zero. One box contained just blackcurrant squash, a packet of hula hoops and a chocolate roll. I can't be the only person thinking that this is not right. But what is the answer? It's too nanny state to intervene or child neglect if someone doesn't.

The report authors say that more needs to be done by retailers, food manufacturers and schools if improvements are to be made overall. To be truthful, I think a lot more needs to be done by parents. This constant shift of responsibility to teachers and schools is a joke. A lot of schools have a policy on packed lunches, but there is no law requiring them to abide by the same standards set for school dinners and even if a law was introduced, why should our teachers police the lunchbox?

The report recommends that primary schools introduce a policy restricting sweetened drinks and encouraging water, salad and fruit. It also suggests parents pack smaller portions of the unhealthy snacks, such as packets of crisps that are around 15g rather than 26g and chocolate cakes and biscuits of 20g. More choices of snacks low in saturated fats and sugars and higher in fibre are needed in our kid's lunchboxes.

A little bit of effort goes a long way. An extra five minutes examining a food product before chucking it in the basket, an extra five minutes cutting up a salad before school... A quick stop off at the local shop after school to do a quick top up shop. These are small things parents can do to make a big difference to kid's diets (and our own diet for that matter). Can we help support people to make small steps or am I just living in Fantasia?


Kelly is a Director at Social Change UK. Over the last decade she has worked on childhood obesity prevention programmes and behaviour change campaigns including Change 4 Life, Get Active, Healthy Takeaways (featured on BBC Inside Out) and has worked with public health professionals across the UK to develop local policies and programmes to address obesity.

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