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School meal deals ‘push unhealthy food on pupils’

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Published Time: 16.05.2024 - 00:40:28 Modified Time: 16.05.2024 - 00:40:28

Healthy lunch options tend to cost children more, researchers find Children are being railroaded into unhealthy food choices at school by companies pushing meal deals, researchers have said

Healthy lunch options tend to cost children more, researchers find

Children are being railroaded into unhealthy food choices at school by companies pushing meal deals, researchers have said.

Healthy lunch options tended to cost more, with fewer available as part of set meal choices, according to a study carried out at seven schools in the UK.

The school dinners in the research also often failed to be filling and the rush to get something quickly meant pupils often bought “grab and go” options such as pizza.

The research was conducted for Fix our Food, which is part of a UK Research and Innovation project on transforming food systems.

As part of the research, secondary school pupils were asked whether a free school meal allowance was sufficient to buy them a tasty, healthy and sustainable meal.

They were given a budget of between £2.15 and £2.70 daily for a week and were asked to keep a food diary to note down what they bought and ate.

The pupils often found they had restricted choices and frequently had to opt for meal deals, including a mains, a dessert, and possibly a drink.

Non-meal deal items were typically found to be healthier alternatives but were too expensive, according to the findings, which were presented at the European Congress on Obesity in Venice.

Sometimes fruit was not visible or easily accessiblewith no fruit bought at all by students in three out of seven schools, the study found.

In most schools, the students were not able to access their school meal allowance during break time, meaning many could be hungry before lunchwhile water fountains were often broken or not well maintained, leading many to buy a drink instead.

Portion sizes ‘not enough’

Dr Sundus Mahdi, a Research Associate at the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York, said: ‘Ultimately some of the main findings were that the choices that young people had were restricted to meal deals.

“What we also found was, through discussions, that non-meal deal items were generally more expensive but they can also be healthier, which is also very relevant in terms of what we are seeing now with the cost of living and inflation, that healthier food just tends to be more expensive.

“Unfortunately, the portion sizes given to some pupils were not enough to sustain them during the school day. 

“There was actually one participant ... who said that during the week that they actually brought a packed lunch with them in addition to ... their meal allowance, because it just wasn’t filling them up.

“There was also agreement that the free school meal allowance needed to be increased to allow pupils to be able to buy a more filling meal and to not go hungry throughout the school day.”

The researchers called for school food standard guidelines to be amended to include two portions of vegetables with every meal. 

They also said schools should ensure they have sufficient funding to provide access to free, clean and maintained drinking water, and to extend free school fruit and vegetable provision to all year groups.

Nutrition ‘vital’ for learning

Prof Maria Bryant, the chief investigator, said: “We know that 30 per cent of daily meal intake in primary school children happens during the school day, so it’s a substantial part of food intake.

“Poor meal choice is often ... a result of a lack of funding and often driven by contracts and procurement processes.”

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