Obesity is the issue of the decade. In the UK, it is thought that a quarter of adults and a tenth of children are obese. Quite apart from the quality of life problems it causes, obesity is a serious drain on the precious resources of the NHS – a £4.2 billion drain, according to government estimates. With the economy flatlining and inflation rising, the NHS is under serious pressure to cut costs.
But what does this have to do with packed lunches? Sadly, it has to do with the way parents of primary children do not always provide a healthy packed lunch. It is a fact that many packed lunches are simply too high in fat and not high enough in vitamins. A study recently showed that just 1% of packed lunches reach the nutritional standards set for school meals. The reason for this is the amount of crisps, confectionary and the lack of fruit in many packed lunches.
There is more to this problem than the basic content of packed lunches, though. In some areas children are sent to school with completely inadequate lunches, or they have been hurriedly bought from a corner shop or petrol station before school. On occasions children are even sent to school with no lunch at all.
Then there is the issue of the culture of eating packed lunches. In many schools they are gobbled, often only half-eaten, as if they were a snack rather than a meal. The amount of food wasted is unsustainable and this simply does not provide children with the energy and alertness required for study.
It could be argued that the above paragraphs are just anecdotal, which is true: however, the facts of packed lunch issues are not. That is why there is a School Food Trust; that is why primary schools now have packed lunch and snack policies; that is why the issue of school meals has become a political concern over recent years.
School meals provide a far better eating experience for children. Firstly, now that more money is spent on them than was the case in the 1980s and 1990s, they are healthier and more satisfying than ever, with vegetarian options and salad options always available. This means they provide a really good basis for children to concentrate in the afternoon. Secondly, and equally important some would say, eating proper meals communally develops social skills and good eating habits. It enables children to learn to pace their eating, to learn conversational skills and to enjoy eating itself – not just throw fuel down themselves. It helps to give them food skills that could lay the foundations for lifelong health.
Yet could packed lunches be banned altogether? Apart from the serious human rights concerns this would raise – it would directly imply that the government did not believe that parents could look after their children – it is not feasible. Too many primary schools shut down and sold off their canteens and refectories in the 1980s and 1990s. For many small schools there is neither the space nor the money to develop enough catering for a whole school. It is possible for small schools to find providers of food that they then buy in and serve in a similar manner, but this cannot be a basis for banning packed lunches, as it would always be subject to those providers pulling out.
Progress has undoubtedly been made, through schools’ packed lunch policies, towards improving the nutritional content of pupils’ lunches. However, there will probably always be a core of children, often the most disadvantaged, whose lunches are inadequate. This is a tragedy for those children, and schools should work with parents to encourage them to change their habits or take up school meals. But banning packed lunches would be a step too far, an intrusion and a heavy-handed way of dealing with a health issue. It would create resentment among the very people it would be trying to help.