School Lunch Line - ©

UK Parents Failing Kids With Poor Packed Lunches

A shocking new study from the UK reveals that kids there are being short-changed nutritionally in the home-packed lunches their parents provide for them to take to school. This is in stark contrast to lunches prepared in school cafeterias, where national standards have been in place since 2006…

A healthy home-packed School Lunch as envisioned by the United Dairy Farmers
of America: Only one or two in every 100 UK school kids get one.

We’ve all heard the stories about kids having their home-packed lunches confiscated by school officials because they didn’t meet official nutritional guidelines. And the tales of kids going hungry when they got behind in their mandatory school lunch accounts. Those are just some of the issues folks are struggling with in jurisdictions where school officials have elected to take full control of kids’ midday nutrition needs in an attempt to ensure that students get sufficient and balanced nutrition.

Proponents of these programs say children may not get proper meals at home and can’t function properly in school without sufficient nutrition. Critics say the System has no place in the lunch boxes of the nation, warning against Big Brotherism and possible infringement of parents’ and kids’ fundamental rights.

Now, a study in the UK seems to suggest that mandatory school lunch programs are needed to ensure kids stay healthy and take full advantage of the learning opportunities they are afforded.

What they did

In 2016, researchers at the University of Leeds surveyed the contents of the boxed lunches of elementary school children in the UK with the results of s similar survey back in 2006. They were looking specifically at the levels of added Sugar, Saturated Fat, Junk Food content, Dairy content, and Vitamin and Mineral content.

What they found

Overall, only 2 of every 100 home-packed lunches examined met the national nutritional standards for School Lunch. Over the ten year span between original study and follow-up, the levels of Sugar and Fat did not subside at all, and the Vitamin and Mineral content of the lunches declined significantly. The level of Dairy products in packed lunches had declined between 2006 and 2016. And only one in 5 of 2016 packed lunches included Salad or Vegetables.

It is estimated that about half of UK elementary school students brings a packed lunch.

The takeaway

Dr. Charlotte Evans, Lead Investigator for the study, said: “The research has found that on some fronts, packed lunches have improved but they are still dominated by sweet and savoury snack food and sugary drinks. The vast majority provide poor nutritional quality. Addressing that issue over the next ten years will require a concerted effort.

“Improving what children eat at school will help reduce the risk of childhood obesity.

“In 2015, figures indicated that around one third of British 10-year-olds were obese – and that is linked to what they are eating.

“This study underlines the role that parents, carers, the Government and the food industry have in ensuring children eat more healthily.

My take

You can’t blame the Government or the Schools for what parents put in their kids’ lunches. And you have to remember the pressure parents are under to pack lunches, both in terms of the time it takes in the morning – especially when both parents are trying to get ready for work – and the generally low and deteriorating standard of parents’ awareness of good nutritional theory and practice. Convenience will always win out over serious consideration when loading the lunch box.

Evans does have one good idea: Make Fruits and Veggies freely available in the schools so kids can be encouraged to supplement their home-packed lunches. I would take that a step further and make Milk freely available, as well.

All that said, I have major reservations about mandatory school-prepared lunches which kids’ families have to pay for. The poorest kids – not just in the UK but in North America – have the poorest diets and need that kind of support the most, but their families can least afford to pay for it. What’s really needed is a way to provide adequate basic nutrition for all school kids equally. I’ll bet that the half of all UK school kids who bring a packed lunch every day would gladly switch to a hot, school-prepared repast if it didn’t cost more.

~ Maggie J.