LACA, the Lead Association for Catering in Education, is working to ensure that the school food industry is playing its part in tackling childhood obesity. Michael Hales, LACA chair, explains how
Tackling childhood obesity is one of the biggest challenges facing our country. According to the Health Survey for England (2014), nearly a third of children aged two to 15 are now overweight or obese. More specifically, childhood obesity is on the rise particularly among children finishing primary school, with levels of severe obesity in children aged 10 to 11 years at their highest point since records began. This state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue.
We know that obesity in childhood leads to stigma, bullying and low self-esteem and is also likely to lead to obesity in adulthood. Overweight and obesity related conditions cost the NHS £6.1 billion in 2015 and the total costs to society – in terms of economic development – of these conditions is already estimated at around £27 billion.
I am immensely proud to be starting my term as the National Chair of LACA, the Lead Association for CAtering in Education and over the next twelve months one of my key priorities will be ensuring that the school food industry is playing its part in tackling childhood obesity.
Without doubt the responsibility for reversing these damaging trends falls to many segments of society but in my view LACA, as the voice of the school food industry, has a key role to play.
Ticking the nutrition box
In the first instance, the government’s introduction of new nutritional standards in 2014 ensures that school meals are nutritionally balanced every day. This stands in stark contrast to packed lunches, of which only 1.6 per cent meet the same high standards. One of the best ways to encourage healthy eating, aside from education, is to feed children a hot, healthy and nutritious school lunch so they can see first-hand what good food looks like. For many children up and down the country a school lunch can be their only hot meal of the day so it is imperative that these continue to be of the highest standards.
I can tell you that on a far too regular basis, our members across the country still recount horror stories of children attending school with nothing but chocolate bars, crisps and sugary drinks as their midday meal. School meals are guaranteed to be nutritionally balanced, so ensuring that the greatest number of children possible can have access to them will be at least one strand of LACA activity in the fight against childhood obesity. The more children that take up the option of a cooked school meal (through their parents), the more who benefit from a nutritionally balanced meal every day of the week during term time, this can only be a positive outcome.
Secondly, the government’s updated Childhood Obesity plan, launched earlier this year, should be welcomed as an initial step in the fight against the obesity epidemic. As part of the strategy the government has pledged to “halve childhood obesity by 2030”. This is an ambitious target for which they will need support from partners across the food and drink industry and beyond. Included within the plan is an intention to update the sugar recommendations in the School Food Standards. LACA welcomes this move and with it the inherent recognition that the School Food Standards are an important mechanism in tackling childhood obesity.
The government has also announced that it will be extending the standards to all schools, including academies and free schools, something that LACA have long called for and we welcome this initiative as well. Nevertheless, LACA would like to see the Childhood Obesity Plan go further.
Whilst extending the school food standards is a positive step, we know that the problem of obesity cannot be solved from within the school gates alone. It Is essential that children eat healthily outside of the school premises too.
An issue that I will be focusing on as Chair of LACA this year is the worrying number of fast food outlets in close proximity to schools. Research by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has suggested that the number of fast-food outlets in England grew by 4,000 between 2014 and 2017, with 1,800 schools having at least 10 such retailers within a 400-metre radius. Currently children are coming out of school hungry and find themselves surrounded by multiple fast food outlets serving deeply unhealthy meals and snacks. We need to make it far easier for children to make the right choices about the food they eat. Whilst 20 local authorities have so far brought in some restrictions on fast food outlets, the majority of authorities have complained that they lack sufficient powers and face too much red tape to introduce such stringent measures. This issue needs addressing and fast.
Extending free meals
LACA will also continue to campaign for Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) to be extended to all school years. Independent academic research carried out by the Education Policy Institute – commissioned by LACA and published earlier this year – found a raft of benefits relating to the policy including increasing the likelihood of children eating fruit and vegetables and broader health improvements. We will work to extend these benefits to children of all ages.
This year LACA’s National Schools Meals Week, taking place 12-16 November, will be an important moment in the calendar to highlight the importance of healthy eating in our schools. It will also mark the 25th Anniversary of NSMW and there will be a lot to celebrate during this Silver Jubilee year to make it an anniversary to remember.
As we have done in previous years, LACA will also be taking school lunches to the centre of political power at the Houses of Parliament, feeding MPs the best of school food and giving us a golden opportunity to press our elected representatives on some of the crucial issues facing the industry.
So, a busy year ahead to say the least. I will be leading our ongoing campaign work on key issues facing our members costs and where the scourge of childhood obesity is concerned I can say with confidence that LACA stands ready to combat it in any way we can.