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Only one in 100 pupils' packed lunches meets basic dietary standards

12-01-2010

The Times

The drive to improve nutrition in schools is failing to reach the country’s children, with only one in 100 packed lunches meeting basic dietary standards, research suggests.

High-profile school campaigns by the Government and Jamie Oliver to improve children’s packed lunches have made little impact, with crisps, sweets, and sugary drinks taking precedence over vegetables, fruit, and milk-based products.

Research published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health suggests that only 1 per cent of primary school children’s packed lunches meet the nutritional standards set for school meals in England.

One in three children was given a sandwich with a low-protein filling, and only one in ten children had sandwiches containing vegetables. A further one in ten was given a separate portion of vegetables. The foodstuff least likely to be eaten when provided was fruit, while confectionery was most commonly consumed.

About half of British schoolchildren eat a packed lunch brought from home — equating to 5.5 billion packed lunches eaten every year.

New standards setting out the required healthy food groups for prepared meals came into force for all local authority schools in England in 2006, prompted by concerns that school lunches were not providing sufficiently healthy food choices.

These specify that school lunches must contain protein rich and low-fat starchy foods, vegetables, fruit and dairy products. Meals cannot include sweets (confectionery), savoury snacks or artificially sweetened drinks. These were followed in 2008 by further government standards on the energy, fat, salt, vitamin and nutrient content for school meals.

All the children took a packed lunch to school on at least one day of the week, and almost nine out of ten ate a packed lunch every day. The type and quantity of foods for each child’s lunch box were recorded and weighed before and after lunch on one day and compared with the Government’s school meal standards.

Permitted savoury or sweet foods, vegetables, and permitted drinks (natural juice, milk, pure water) were the least likely to be provided. Sandwiches, sweets, savoury snacks and artificially sweetened drinks were the most common items.

More than one in four children had a packed lunch containing sweets, savoury snacks, and sugary drinks; a further four out of ten had sweets and snacks, but no sugary drink. Fewer than one in ten had none of these foodstuffs in their lunchbox.

The research team, from the Centre for Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Leeds, collected information on the packed lunch content for just under 1,300 children between the ages of 8 and 9. It focused on 89 primary schools across Britain — 76 in England, four in Scotland, six in Wales and three in Northern Ireland.

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