Free school meals ‘help in fight against obesity’

Free school meals are said to be a key weapon in the battle against obesity

Obesity levels in children continued to be a “disaster”, but the opportunity to improve their nutritional needs through free school meals remained huge, a public health professor has argued.

Offering healthy school meals was a critical aid in averting childhood obesity, and a ‘whole school’ approach – involving those delivering the curriculum and food in schools together with families and communities – was the most effective way of delivering this, claimed Ashley Adamson, professor of public health nutrition at the University of Newcastle.

Adamson was addressing delegates at the British Nutrition Foundation’s (BNF’s) 50th anniversary conference: ‘Talking about the next generation: nutrition in school age children’, held in London at the end of April.

“There are about 8M children in primary and secondary state schools whose diet we can influence – I would say that’s important,” she said.

‘Diet we can influence’

“The whole school approach is thinking about the curriculum, the physical environment, and family and community engagement. It’s about the notion that a healthy school strengthens the capacity for overall healthier living.”

According to Adamson, one in five children at reception year age (four to five) were clinically overweight or obese – a figure that rose to one in three by the time they moved into secondary school (aged 11 to 12).

While the government stopped measuring the percentage of schoolchildren having free meals in 2012, Adamson said figures from the National Association for Primary Education showed uptake in primary schools was around 66% – close to the 70% peak in 1973 for all school age children.

Her comments came ahead of a Conservative Party general election pledge to provide all primary school pupils with free breakfasts, at the cost of universal infant free school meals. Critics of the plan said it hadn’t been properly costed – with £600M a likelier figure needed to fund it than the proposed £60M.

Food nutrition knowledge

The BNF used its conference to launch an online training course aimed at improving the food nutrition knowledge of primary schoolteachers.

The course, ‘Teaching food in primary: the why, what and how’, includes Public Health England’s Eatwell Guide, healthy eating, and nutrition understanding.

It followed a BNF survey where teachers disclosed the low levels of food and nutrition training that they felt they had received professionally, Roy Ballam, md and head of education at the BNF, told delegates.

“One in three had been given some training in the past couple of years, but most of it was based around food safety,” he said. “We need to make sure all children at school receive good quality food education. It needs to be in the formal national curriculum.”

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