In their fight to tackle COVID-19, schools must remember to still address rising obesity in children and the importance of nutrition for their development Comment by MELANIE COOPER, Educational Catering Specialist, MKG Foods

Schools are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to lunches. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have

a huge impact on the lives of children within the education system, and the day-to-day operations of schools. To minimise its spread, the Department for Education (DfE) has rightly recommended that break and lunch times should be staggered, so that set groups of pupils do not mix. While this is needed, it is unfortunate, as these periods allow pupils to build friendships and enjoy play activities that are vital for their development. The DfE has stated that that schools and

communities must make “informed judgments about how to balance delivering a broad and balanced curriculum with the measures needed to manage risk.” Without any real oversight, other than some general guidelines, schools are being left to their own devices, and this can put them in a difficult position as they balance safety with pupils’ health and social development. Many schools, where space is often at a premium, they typically host several lunch sittings in a single location, in order to feed and process their pupils as quickly and efficiently as possible. This can result in a 20-minute window for food to be consumed, which may have a number of implications for pupils that need to be carefully considered. Last year a long-term study by University College London (UCL) found

that in 1995, just a third of secondary schools (30%) reported lunch breaks of less than 55 minutes. Now, that figure has risen to 82%. Furthermore, a quarter of secondary schools reported lunchtimes of 35 minutes or less. Unfortunately, this time can be further reduced when pupils behave poorly, and schools cancel breaks as a punishment. Reflecting on the report’s findings, its lead author Dr Ed Baines,

Senior Lecturer in Psychology of Education stated “Children barely have enough time to queue up and to eat their lunch, let alone have time for other things like socialising, physical exercise, or exploring self-chosen activities.” With the length of school lunchtimes already under severe pressure prior to the pandemic, the effects of the coronavirus are further squeezing these activities and limiting the associated benefits they provide.

Tackling obesity, ensuring attainment It is also important to note that, according to the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), almost one in five children are overweight or obese when they start primary school, rising to one in three when they start secondary school. The RCPCH describe this a “childhood obesity epidemic” that “presents one of the greatest health threats to both children’s and the UK’s future”. Not only does increases the risk of young people being obese later in life, but it also causes low self-esteem, and negatively impacts their educational attainment. A 2015 study published in the US Journal of the Academy of Nutrition

and Dietetics. titled “Amount of Time to Eat Lunch Is Associated with Children’s Selection and Consumption of School Meal Entrée, Fruits, Vegetables, and Milk” also found that that children who have fewer


than 20 minutes to eat consumed significantly less of their entrees, milk, and vegetables, and were less likely to select a piece of fruit. In fact the NHS, citing a study by Kyushu University in Japan has said that “eating slowly might reduce the amount of calories we consume, either because we have time to recognise signals that we've eaten enough, or because by eating slowly we can't cram as many calories into a set eating time.” If schools want to improve the academic

performance of their pupils and safeguard their long-term health, they need rethink their approach to lunch times. Children and teenagers need a healthy, varied diet to not only maintain a healthy body weight, but also to provide them with adequate energy and focus to ensure they perform academically to the best of their ability. Packed lunches are often perceived as being the healthy alternative to school dinners, and given their prepacked nature, are great for teachers looking to get pupils in and out of the lunch hall quickly. Yet a survey by Leeds University at the beginning of the year found that only 1.6 percent of packed lunches in England meet nutritional standards

imposed on school caterers by the government, compared to one percent in 2006. For busy parents, especially those on low incomes, it is too easy to fall into the trap of packing a lunchbox filled with sweet and savoury snack food and sugary drinks.

Schools have access to food specialists so use them! Schools are in a difficult position. They are experts in providing education rather than nutrition, and though the two are linked, it is easy to overlook this. Similarly schools have a duty of care to their pupils, but in their rush to safeguard them against COVID-19, their health and development is still being impacted. Yet there is also an additional danger that what is accepted now as a precautionary measure e.g. shorter lunches, will become accepted practice even once the pandemic is over. There is no easy answer to this problem but a solution can be found if

education providers further utilise the knowledge and experience of their caterers and supply chains, and work with them to create a lunchtime environment that is safe but conducive to pupils’ wellbeing. This can be anything from creating innovative ways to organise pupils efficiently in order to maximise the time available for their lunch and socialisation, to creating dinner menus that are nutritious and enjoyable. For schools that wish to reassure parents of the actions they are taking and the reasons why, literature should be created by their food specialists explaining this, accompanied with Q&A style information outlining why say, lunchboxes are not the only, or necessarily the right option for their children. The COVID-19 pandemic will likely be with us for some time to come

and the majority of schools are dealing with it brilliantly, but there is always a danger that in our bid to do what we feel is right now, complacency will set in, and bad practices will become the norm in our schools. If we really want to do what is best for our young people, we must all work together now, to ensure their future wellbeing.

November 2020

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