The State of School Dinners

Osmi Anannya 

Image © USDAgov

Jamie Oliver has renewed his series of attacks on Michael Gove, after the Education Secretary appointed Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, the dynamic twosome from the healthy fast-food chain, Leon, to examine school dinners in Britain. Oliver, who has been relentlessly campaigning for bringing about healthier alternatives in school meals for many years now, toxically remarked that another expensive review of the situation is really not required and more should be invested in getting involved in the matter and bringing about a positive change. Oliver has also criticised Gove’s decision to not include academies and free schools in the legal requirement framework, which states that school meals must adhere to certain basic nutritional standards, because he trusts the professionals in such institutions to act in the best interest of the pupils.

It seems an odd decision to pick the men from Leon to carry out the examination, even though they do admirably have a good record of producing healthy, tasty food with a commercial perspective, because so do many other restaurateurs around the country. The co-founders of Leon are to chart up an “action plan” to ensure improvements in the standards of school food, as well as determine, more broadly, what role food plays in school life, in an attempt to make more nutritious and tasty food available to school children.

Labour set minimum nutritional standards for school food in England in 2008 – 2009 and spent millions of pounds transforming menus to include healthier options, following Jamie’s School Dinners (2005) show on television. The show had revealed how unhealthy much of the school food in England was. In fact, a survey carried out by the School Food Trust, just a few days before Gove’s recent decision regarding the situation, found that only about 22.5 % of schools provided pupils with the standard requirement of at least one portion of fruit and vegetables a day. Around a half of secondary schools, the survey also found, served up pizza and starchy food, cooked mostly in unhealthy oils.

Michael Gove’s intentions to re-examine the situation is perhaps commendable in the sense that getting a different point of view about the situation will help to deliver a better plan than simply listening to everything that Jamie Oliver has to say about the issue. The point remains though, that in order to improve standards in school food, Gove should not delay the work to be undertaken to deal with the crisis.

In the UK, around 27% of children are overweight, which at the present moment is the highest in Europe. The Government’s Foresight report suggests that this is expected to get worse with 40% of Britons expected to be obese by 2025. An obesity epidemic seems to be just looming over the horizon for Britain, and appropriate measures should really be taken to curb the situation before it becomes truly problematic. Apart from the health problems-aspect, an obesity epidemic also has an adverse effect on the emotional make-up of children. 

An obese child is more likely to develop serious health problems if the trend is allowed to continue. Early symptoms of health issues such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol levels and liver disease, are commonplace in children, even though serious developments might not take place before they turn into adults. Children can start to feel certain effects of obesity, such as intracranial hypertension, which produces headaches, and hypoventilation, which leads to drowsiness during the day, among other health problems, at an earlier stage as well.

Young children often find it unwelcoming to be instructed to choose a healthy alternative to what they classify as “tasty” food, which are mostly fatty foods. It is this loophole that is giving rise to the crisis because school diners can choose to spurn out unhealthy food, and schools can only claim to look into the matter and then come back with negative results, and in the end not do enough. The scenario is such that if most schools do start to offer the sort of healthy alternatives Jamie Oliver has in mind, there is a possibility that children might decide to not even plate up. Instead, they could choose to bring in home-cooked food to school to eat, which according to Oliver, are more often than not, equally unhealthy as the present sort served in schools.

In order to bring about a change to the situation, young children need to be educated about the adverse effects their unhealthy choices are going to lead to. Although critics might argue that it is difficult for children to be able to grasp such concepts at an early age, it still is one of the best alternatives to curb such a lifestyle. Gove should look into promoting and educating young children about which sort of food to choose and why, and how to balance out a healthy plan with certain fatty foods, because after all, they do need the carbohydrates and the right amount of fat consumption to run around and get things done.

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