Pupils choose grab-and-go foods at schools

children eating lunch

New research from nutrition experts at the University of Sheffield has revealed that sandwiches, pizza and puddings are the most popular dishes with pupils.

The pioneering study, published in Public Health Nutrition, discovered that despite secondary schools offering a number of freshly prepared hot meal options pupils are disregarding these in favour of foods such as sandwiches and pizza.

However the research, which involved 2,660 pupils from two large Yorkshire secondary schools, also found that children entitled to Free School Meals (FSM) were more likely to pick nutritionally valuable freshly prepared dishes of the day.

The FSM programme, which provides a free school meal for children from low-income families, can make an important contribution to the diet of poorer children, especially where there may be little guarantee of nutritious food at home.

Obesity in childhood is fast becoming a global epidemic and within the UK is at unprecedented levels with 28 per cent of girls and 31 per cent of boys aged between two-15 years being classified as obese or overweight.

Nutrition and obesity are public health priorities due to their links with chronic and life-threatening diseases as well as huge associated costs for the NHS.

School meals can substantially affect a pupil’s diet and overall health and wellbeing. There are more than eight million school children in England and more than three million eat a school meal every day, contributing to 590 million school lunches consumed every year.

Lead author Hannah Ensaff, from the University’s Department of Oncology, said: “Eating behaviour is learnt early on and food preferences established in childhood and adolescence tend to persist into adult life, with related consequences for long-term health.

“Healthy eating habits are crucial to reducing children’s risk of health problems, both long and short-term. The school food environment is an obvious public health intervention, particularly as children today seem to rely more on school food than decades ago.”

Over recent years food-based and nutrient-based standards have improved the provision of school food, most notably through the prohibition and restriction of sources of high fat and sugar such as confectionary, crisps and carbonated soft drinks.

These findings however show a large discrepancy between foods comprising the theoretical menu cycle and the actual grab-and-go choices made by pupils, which highlight the need to consider children’s food choice behaviour, as well as take the opportunity to improve the nutrient density of these popular food items.

Dr Margo Barker, Senior Lecturer in Nutritional Epidemiology, said: “The patterns of food choice of students receiving free school meals with those that pay for them are of particular interest. Students receiving free school meals made nutritionally superior choices in the school canteen, although surveys show that their overall diet is lacking.

“This anomaly seems to be evidence for those calling for policy to extend free school meals beyond those families of lowest income.”

Meeting school food standards – students’ food choice and free school meals
Hannah Ensaff, Jean Russell and Margo E Barker

This paper is freely available online for two weeks


Wasting their 5 a day? Examining school children’s lunchtime habits

School Lunch
The October Nutrition Society Paper of the Month is from Public Health Nutrition and is entitled ‘Food choice, plate wastes and nutrient intake of elementary- and middle-school students participating in the US National School Lunch Program’.
Posted on beh
alf of Stephanie L Smith

Elementary and middle school students, eating school lunch, do not frequently select vegetables and waste considerably more fruits and vegetables than the entrée or milk, a new study, published in Public Health Nutrition, from Colorado State University (CSU) shows.

Plate waste was assessed for a 5-day period in each of three Northern Colorado elementary schools and two middle schools to determine what foods students were choosing for lunch and what foods they were wasting. We also compared the students’ average nutrient intake from lunch with the recently implemented and stronger standards mandated by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010.

A total of 535 elementary-school students and 364 middle-school students participated in the plate waste assessment. Approximately half the students were male and half were female. We found students were much less likely to choose vegetables with their lunch and even when they did, they wasted 30-50%. Additionally, while students selected fruit more often, they also wasted as much as 50% of the fruit they took. As a result, few students’ lunch consumption met the new HHFKA standards. Due to the relatively low intake of vegetables, intakes of vitamins A and C were of particular concern.

All US school lunches are required to meet the US Dietary Guidelines for Americans and planned to ensure students receive at least one-third of their daily nutrient needs at lunch. However, if students do not choose and/or eat the fruits and vegetables offered, as the results of this study show, they will likely miss key nutrients such as Vitamins A and C, iron, and fibre.

Results of the present study show a need for multifaceted nutrition education and marketing strategies to improve students’ selection and consumption of vegetables with school lunch. Dr. Cunningham-Sabo, Research Associate Stephanie Smith and their team are involved in ongoing research to implement effective behavioral interventions, combined with marketing, communication messages and behavioral economics to improve children’s fruit and vegetable preferences and consumption. Lead author, Smith says “we are working with the schools in Northern Colorado on a number of strategies to improve children’s fruit and vegetable intake. The stronger school meal standards will only benefit children if they actually take the foods and eat them.”

This paper is freely available for one month via the following link: journals.cambridge.org/ns/oct13

Nutrition Society Paper of the Month

Each month a paper is selected by one of the Editors of the five Nutrition Society Publications (British Journal of NutritionPublic Health NutritionNutrition Research ReviewsProceedings of the Nutrition Society and Journal of Nutritional Science). This paper is freely available for one month.

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