Put the lunch police back in their box

New research says children’s packed lunches are unhealthy. But what we feed our kids is no business of government.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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A new report produced by researchers at Leeds University on behalf of the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) suggests that just one per cent of packed lunches for eight- to nine-year-old children meets the government’s nutritional standards for school meals. This might be an indication that the nation’s children are facing a life blighted by malnourishment and obesity… or it might show that the idea that government ministers and health guardians, rather than parents, should determine our children’s diets is bonkers.

The researchers looked at the packed lunches of 1,294 children from 89 schools in the UK, mostly in England. Just 14 (1.1 per cent) of the lunchboxes contained a mix of foods that would meet the same standards that are now applied to school meals. These standards, at least in England, were introduced in response to TV chef Jamie Oliver’s high-profile crusade for healthy dinners and research suggesting that children will choose the ‘wrong’ foods at lunchtime given half a chance. As a result, the government created the School Meals Review Panel, whose recommendations, published in October 2005, inform the current standards for English school dinners. The standards came into force in September 2006.

Since September 2008, primary-school meals must also meet standards for 14 nutrients, including overall calories, fat, saturated fat, sugars, sodium, carbohydrate, protein, fibre, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, calcium, iron and zinc. Foods high in salt, sugars and fats are restricted or banned. Packed lunches prepared by schools must not contain confectionery, savoury snacks or drinks other than water, pure fruit juice or milk.

The fear amongst the little Hitlers who are now micromanaging school meals is that half of children don’t touch the lunches prepared by schools – their parents give them a packed lunch instead. This is a gaping hole in the no-child-must-get-fat strategy, which led Oliver in 2006 to declare that packed lunches are ‘the biggest evil’: ‘Even the best packed lunch is a shit packed lunch.’ The findings of this latest piece of research will only have confirmed the petty prejudices of the lunchbox police: parents are idiots who shouldn’t be trusted with feeding their children.

A closer look at the figures, however, suggests otherwise. Firstly, despite the suggestion that government and schools should be more active in determining the contents of lunchboxes, children are not going to be getting fat on them any time soon. That’s because children simply don’t eat everything they’re given, a fact that will be of no surprise to any moderately sensible parent. As a result, children’s energy intake turned out to be lower than the school meals standard. On average, children were given 624 calories worth of food by their parents, compared with the official recommendation of 530 calories – however, these kids consumed around 475 calories of what was inside their packed lunches.

The same gap applied to total fat and saturated fat. The total amount of fat actually consumed by packed lunch-eaters was well below the recommended level (16.9 grammes compared with the guideline of 20.6 grammes) and saturated fat intake was almost bang on the recommended level (6.7 grammes compared with the standard of 6.5 grammes). While sodium and sugar levels breached the guidelines, the reality of what children eat, rather than what they are given, suggests it is highly unlikely that packed lunches are going to produce a generation of porkers.

Secondly, it looks like parents are being canny in what they give their children. After all, the most important thing is that children eat something at lunchtime. There’s no point creating a nutritionally balanced packed lunch if the recipient then dumps most of it in the bin. The figures for the proportion of foods actually eaten bear this out: sandwiches: 78 per cent; milk-based desserts: 85 per cent; confectionery: 86 per cent; vegetables/salad: 73 per cent (but found in just 19 per cent of lunches); fruit: 53 per cent. In other words, parents recognise that if they don’t stick a few treats in there, then little Johnny or Mary will be running on empty all afternoon.

There have been signs of a shift towards meeting the recommendations however, for which we can thank… the much-maligned food processing industry. The report notes: ‘Total fat and saturated levels appear to have decreased since the 2004 survey… In recent years, the manufacturing industry has endeavoured to reduce the total fat and saturated fat content of a number of foods including crisps, cakes and biscuits.’ Given that the number of snack foods is unlikely to have gone down, say the report authors, the implication is that it is the change in food composition which is having an impact.

What we are seeing in relation to children’s eating is a shift from food – stuff that tastes good and broadly satisfies our bodies’ needs – to an obsession with nutrition. The end result is school food that is often bland and more concerned with juggling menu guidelines than actually satisfying appetites. Ironically, such tasteless offerings are probably a long way from the teach-kids-about-food-culture idea that Jamie Oliver first had when he originally launched his school meals campaign.

Feeding kids has thus become an unnecessarily complex dilemma for parents, balancing cost, nutrition and the simple business of getting children to eat anything at all. For example, children are often fussy eaters who will, in time, grow out of their faddish ways. As Oliver’s fellow chef and Channel 4 stablemate, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, admitted in an interview last year: ‘The food I loved, I loved with passion. Findus Crispy Pancakes, boy did I love them. Fish fingers: completely addicted. Also my mum’s spaghetti Bolognese. I used to be really fussy. There was a whole list of foods I wouldn’t touch which definitely included mushrooms or tomatoes in any shape or form, except ketchup. Couldn’t put them in my mouth without gagging.’ Now Fearnley-Whittingstall’s tastes are famously exotic.

In today’s circumstances, it makes sense for parents to work food issues out for themselves, depending on what works for them and their children. It is crass stupidity for schools and government watchdogs to try to dictate what our children should eat. Yet that is exactly what they’ve been trying to do. So lunchboxes are now inspected by schools and letters are sent to parents whose packed lunches don’t come up to scratch. We can expect more of this kind of thing if the conclusion of this new report – that ‘future research should address policy, interventions and health promotion programmes that educate parents’ – is pursued.

But the battle of the lunchbox is about more than what our children eat – it strikes at the very heart of family life. Children – especially the kind of young children surveyed in this report – look to their parents as the reliable guides on every aspect of the world. Parents, in turn, take on a special duty to bring children up and prepare them for independent life in the world. In order to do this, they need to be seen as the final source of authority in children’s lives. Of course, as children get older they see that their parents are not perfect and frequently rebel against them, but this special relationship is central to making our society tick. It is also a basic issue of freedom.

Blundering interventions into family life, like lunchbox inspections, undermine this special bond. Suddenly, even from an early age, children are told that parents are not the best people to protect their interests; apparently that job should fall to the state instead. When a child is given a letter to take home from school for having brought in the wrong food – or even sent home themselves in disgrace – that child is being told that mum and dad are an embarrassing failure. Schools, which should be concentrating on providing a stimulating education, are forced into battle with parents over something that should not be the concern of teachers.

This corrosion of important relationships – between parent and child, and school and family – is far more dangerous than the tiny, probably non-existent, harm caused by eating too much saturated fat. It’s time to tell the lunchbox police to get stuffed.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked and blogs about food at Panic on a Plate.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons called for an end to the war on obesity and attacked the packed lunch police. Jane Sandeman declared war in the battle of the lunchbox. Jennie Bristow argued that the main problem with school meals was the unwholesome attitude to parents. Patrick Basham and John Luik argued that dieting is a waste of time. Dan Travis thought giving children pedometers was a step in the wrong direction. Josie Appleton said there’s more to childhood than counting calories. Or read more at: spiked issue Obesity.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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