Students Opting for Packed Lunches

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Experts Fear of Less Healthy Options

Universal free school meals should be offered to all children in their first years of secondary school, according to one of the leading nutrition experts in the UK.

New research by experts at Newcastle University has shown that despite improvement in school lunches, fewer pre-teens are benefiting because less of them eat school lunches than children in primary schools.

Professor Ashley Adamson’s team found that both before and after the policy change 11-12 year olds eating school lunches were eating less saturated fat and less salt at lunchtime. In children’s overall diet, the findings show that before the change in 1999-2000 children eating a school lunch had higher per cent energy from fat compared to children eating a home-packed lunch. 

However, after the change in 2009, children eating a school lunch received less of their energy from fat than children eating a home-packed lunch and ate less salt. Regardless of whether children had packed or school lunch, 11-12 year olds did not eat enough iron and had too much sugar in their diet. 

Eating fewer school lunches than younger schoolchildren and food choice are some of the reasons why 11-12 year olds are not receiving the health benefits of school lunches.  

Professor Adamson explains: “Unlike the primary school children coming through now, older children had got used to ‘chips with everything’, served in their schools and when this stopped many switched to packed lunches. 

“While parents have great influence over younger children, 11-12 year olds are fully exposed to the wider aspects of our obesogenic environment such as food marketing. This means that the food culture of pre-teens is more likely to include fast foods and unhealthy snacks.”

The researchers analysed the dietary intake of 11-12 year olds from over 500 children in six Northumberland middle schools. Data from 1999-2000 were compared with the results from the same schools taken in 2009-10 to assess the effect of the policy. 

The number of 11-12 year olds eating a packed lunch increased from 19% to 54% after the policy change. By contrast, in areas of the North East England over 90% of primary school children are now eating a school lunch after the School Food Plan was launched in 2013 and from September this year all children in their first three years in school can have a free school meal.   

Professor Adamson believes the next target for free school meal entitlement should be the first years of secondary school, starting with year 7s ( 11-12 year olds).

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