Our children need a champion like Jamie Oliver to lead the way on healthy food
Published 25/08/2016 | 02:30
Schools have been identified as an important setting for the provision and promotion of healthy food to young people.
Guidelines for developing healthy eating policies and practices in second-level schools in Ireland have been available since 2008 but, to date, no mandatory standards have been implemented. Hence practices are locally driven and vary from school to school.
Previous research has shown that approximately three-quarters of Irish second-level schools are located within one kilometre of a fast food restaurant. The impact of this on the dietary choices and nutrient intakes of schoolchildren in Ireland has not previously been examined and was the subject of new research, conducted by myself and colleagues at Dublin City University (DCU) and published in the journal 'Public Health Nutrition' today.
The study explored the nutrient profile of school day lunches of adolescents attending post-primary schools, with a particular emphasis on the source of the food and impact of source on nutritional quality.
More girls (213) than boys (92) participated in the study of pupils aged 15-17. They were recruited to take part in self-report food diaries.
There was a bias towards affluence in the study sample. Only 4pc of participants lived in socially disadvantaged areas, with the remaining from very affluent (4pc), affluent (27pc), marginally above average (44pc) and marginally below average (21pc) areas, as defined from home addresses using the Pobal HP deprivation index. None of the participating schools were eligible for the Schools Meals Scheme.
Broadly speaking, school lunches were obtained from three sources - packed lunches from home, lunches bought at school (included canteen, shop and vending machines) and food bought in the vicinity of schools (including hot counters/delis in local shops, cafes and takeaways).
The research showed that shop-bought lunches and lunches bought in schools were of a lower nutritional value than homemade lunches, with higher levels of calories, added sugars and fat. Boys were more likely than girls to buy food from a local outlet.
We have seen how low-nutrient, energy-dense food and beverage items, including confectionery and sugar-sweetened beverage items, are commonly sold alongside healthier options in Irish post-primary schools.
Food retailers in close proximity to second-level schools are an important influence on the dietary behaviour of young people. Our study showed that, for the most part, home lunches were preferable to bought lunches, but the average school day lunch, irrespective of source, was low in fibre, vitamins and minerals, and high in salt. So, all school lunches need attention in terms of fibre, vitamins and minerals and we need to raise awareness both at home and in school about the importance of improving the quality of the foods our teenagers eat.
We found that principals, teachers and parents recognised the importance of children attending their school having access to fresh, nutritious and healthy foods, but are limited by the available catering space and areas for dining. Open-campus policies alleviate this issue for some schools at lunch time.
Sarah Browne, who undertook the research, says "teenagers spend a lot of time in schools and are making independent food choices, and there is a great opportunity to offer healthy foods to develop healthy habits for life."
Fast and processed foods are a culture now firmly embedded in secondary schools in Ireland - cultures are hard to change and can take years.
Legislation will be more effective and would result in changes occurring more quickly.
We are calling on the Department of Education and Skills and schools to consider policies that improve school food practices and minimise students' exposure to unhealthy food environments. Initiatives that encourage teenagers to opt for homemade lunches are also recommended.
Recent school reforms in the UK include mandatory nutrient standards for school meals as well as restrictions on the availability, frequency and portion sizes of high-sugar and high-fat snack foods. These improvements related to macronutrients composition, increased dietary fibre as well as vitamin C.
Research in the UK has indicated that these standards are improving the nutritional intake of students who avail of school lunches, compared with home-sourced lunches.
Jamie Oliver's highlighting of the importance of school nutrition in the UK has led to the improvement of school food there. Ireland could benefit from such a champion.