This dissertation investigates the Healthy Schools Initiative and School Meals ‘Revolution’ of the past few years.
This study investigates how school meals are received by today’s Primary School children, and how they perceive healthy-eating – whether they understand the reasons for eating healthily and the impact of body and mind. There are also comparisons made with school meals of generations from the 1940’s through to the 1990’s, in an attempt to see how the school meals have changed, in nutrition, taste and choice.
It would appear that the meals today are well received and children are certainly becoming more educated on the benefits of healthy eating through school programmes, and this study delves into the stories behind the headlines, and attempts to prove that the change in school meals is certainly for the better.
This dissertation is a study of the Healthy Schools Initiative and School Meals Revolution. The aim was to see how today’s school meals are nutritionally better than those from previous generations, and how children perceive healthy-eating as a concept.
There has been much media attention over recent years, however Government policies were in place prior to the issue being brought to the forefront of our attention by Jamie Oliver’s 2005 campaign. The questionnaires issued to local primary school children were designed to ascertain their enjoyment of school meals, whether there was a particular meal they would like to see on the menu, and their opinions of the choices offered.
Studies have shown that children tend to favour foods containing a high saturated fat content for school meals, such as burgers, chips and pizza, and vegetables were considered much less favourable (Gardner Merchant 1991; Turner et al 1995 Ross 1995; cited in Noble 2001). The study for this dissertation showed that by and large this appears to be true, although such meals were favoured by younger children as opposed to the older children who had more experience of health education. Health education has changed children’s perceptions of what constitutes a healthy meal (Noble et al 1991) although appearance and taste of food was given greater importance than nutritional content. Children surveyed within Key Stage 2 had varying conceptualisations of eating healthily, popular answers being consuming plenty of fruit and vegetables, and eating a balanced diet.
Health is a vital issue in today’s society. Childhood obesity is at the forefront of Government policy after recent statistics disclosed that nearly one in five Year 6 pupils in England (19.0%) is classified as obese (Guardian Online 2011). The figure for 2010-2011 is marginally increased on the 18.7% reported the previous year, however it is important to ensure these figures do not increase further, hence why measures are being taken to educate children effectively regarding health and nutrition.
This study has shown that school meals are more wholesome than in previous years, with a wider choice available, and children are becoming educated through school initiatives and health education. If society continues to provide a healthy selection of food in schools, this generation will be healthier and more aware of nutrition than previous generations, and attitudes towards food will certainly impact on lowering childhood obesity figures, provided parents also change their views and serve balanced meals at home.
In recent years, there has been a multitude of research and literature on childhood obesity and its prevention. Subsequently, this will ensure future generations have a healthier lifestyle, and increase adult life expectancy. It is vital to ensure that children are aware that healthy food can also be tasty and enjoyable, whilst providing them with the nutrients they need to develop. This can be done through health education programmes, guiding children to make informed judgements regarding healthy food.
A focus of some of the literature surrounding children’s health has been school meals, and how these are prepared and served. Not only has research into school meals investigated nutritional values, moreover it has been reiterated that early intervention within education is vital in ameliorating children’s success (Heckman 2006), and certainly includes the school meal provision as a component of the educational journey. This is largely because one pivotal developmental factor relates to diet and nutrition. Developed countries have seen a deterioration in the quality of children’s diets in recent decades (Belot & James 2009), directly correlating with increasing obesity levels and general health. In 2006, as Belot & James continue, it was found that around 15% of British children under 10 were officially classified as obese (HSCIC 2010) compared with a figure of 10% in 2002.
This has prompted a complete overhaul of nutritional standards, including meals served within schools. When approaching health promotion issues, the calibre and quantity of the meals and drinks provided to school children has a crucial impact on their overall well-being (Perez-Rodrigo et al. 2001). It is widely known that eating healthily and exercising regularly are vital for development and growth, helps academic performance and reduces the risk of serious health conditions in adulthood (Aranceta-Bartrina & Perez Rodrigo 2006). Children in Western developed countries generally attend a school setting 5 days per week, 9 months per year for approximately 11 years of their lives, as Aranceta-Bartrina & Perez-Rodrigo continue.
This constitutes a significant proportion of developmental phases, and also spans a critical period of growth and development. Furthermore, it is reported that energy intake contribution from school meals equates to around 30-35%, in addition to providing vital nutrients (Gordon et al. 1995). School mealtimes also provide opportunities for multi-cultural impact and socialisation, in the same manner as when adults meet with friends for a meal out (American Dietetic Association, 1999). A child’s school days are a vital time for acquisition of healthy behaviours, hence the setting provides prime opportunities for influencing their perception of healthy eating, and general measures for future well-being (Birch & Fisher, 1998; Story et al. 2002). It has been documented that further interventions such as an increased availability of wholesome foods and easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables has proven effective in improving children’s awareness of eating healthily (Perry et al. 2004).
There has been much research undertaken regarding school meals, adding to the information gauged from Aranceta-Bartrina & Perez-Rodrigo, and Gordon et al. These studies followed suppositions that schools were not providing the optimum nutrition within their meal preparation, hence regulations for school lunches became effective in 2001 (Rees et al 2008). However, there has been a lesser improvement of nutrient intake than desired (Nelson et al 2007), indeed a national survey within primary settings suggested that schools failure in attaining these standards (Nelson et al. 2006). This prompted Government interaction, hence the School Meals Review Panel (SMRP) was implemented to revise the nutritional standards. Following this, as Rees et al document, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) constituted The School Food Trust to implement recommendations of the review panel (SMRP, 2005). The augmented school meal standards were unveiled in 2006, and later that year, interim general food criterion were introduced (later amended in 2007; School Food Trust 2007a), and which set conditions for provision of food other than school meals and subsequently the ultimate standards came into effect in 2008.
These standards not only affect cooked school meals, but also packed lunches, which should follow certain criteria, and be nutritionally balanced. The study by Rees et al concluded that on average, children who brought a packed lunch-box consumed around twice as much sugar, salt and saturates than those who ate a school meal. This information proved useful on two counts, initially demonstrating how a school meal was nutritionally better than a packed lunch (enabling promotion of school meals to parents). The other advantage uncovered the need to educate parents on what constitutes a healthy, balanced packed lunch, and how to reduce saturates, sugar and salt. It was also found that children’s fruit consumption required improvement both in packed lunches, and school meals. It was suggested by Rees et al, to offer reduced frequency of ‘other’ desserts, and increase fruit and fruit-based selection. The introduction of the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme which provides children under 7 with a piece of fruit or vegetable per day has also helped enormously with fruit consumption amongst young children.
There is a good deal of literature on the reasons why school meals have been a focus of Government policies and scientific research, however to fully encapsulate the subject, it is necessary to understand the history of school meals, and how they came to have such a high profile amongst healthy-eating policies, and what is being done to ensure children are appropriately educated on eating healthily as a way of life rather than relying on their school dinner for nutrition.
School meals have not always been as readily available, or popular as today. Past literature has documented that the roots of school meal provision is derived from charitable organisations in the 19th Century (School Meals Review Panel, 2005). Historians have discovered that in 1879, Manchester pioneered provision of a school meal for those children deemed impoverished and malnourished (Evans & Harper 2009). This changed with the 1944 Education Act, which charged Local Education Authorities (LEA’s) with duties of providing meals for all schoolchildren who wanted one, rather than aimed at the poorest children (Burnett 2006). As Burnett states, in the pre war year of 1938, there were around 4% of children receiving school meals, of which two thirds received them free of charge, however by 1945, there were around 40% of children (around 1.6 million) receiving a meal in school, with a large number paying heavy subsidies. This change, as Burnett continued, was a result of war rationing, and the fact that the school dinner was regarded as the child’s main meal. Today, although school meals are readily available, they are chargeable. This may be unaffordable to some parents in deprived areas, however the introduction of ‘free school meals’ for children whose parents are in receipt of specific benefits allows children access to a hot meal, which they may not always have at home, depending on parental circumstances.
Gradually, Governments have changed food based policies throughout the decades, each bringing new guidelines and standards, although historically, food policies were less topical than they are today, particularly through the Thatcher years, where food was not considered a domain of public policies (Naik 2008). In Thatcherite Britain there was increasing awareness about the Governmental role in nutrition and health policies, although according to Naik, such notions were neglected in an era of what was a non-interventionist nation. Nevertheless, Governmental involvement has increasingly been at the forefront of health issues with the current era, with cases of obesity increasing threefold over the past two decades.
Whilst the New Labour Government was developing food related policies between 1997 and 2004, there was a scant media stance on the subject. According to Naiks findings, the number of articles regarding healthy eating was thought to be less than 500 in 1997, gradually increasing through the years to 10 times this number in 2005, one year following implementation of the full Governmental policy. Furthermore, when reviewing these articles, it was found that a large number were simply reporting on data deriving from Government policies and legislation, rather than forming any real opinion or argument. It was Celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver who caused a media stir regarding school meals provided to the nations children. Oliver criticised catering standards in primary schools, discovering that one school in London was allocating a mere 37p per child per day on a school meal – less than a prison meal would cost (BBC 2005). This drew vast amounts of media attention, and following a petition delivered by Oliver to the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, the Government decided to invest an extra £280m into improving school meals over the next three years.
The media appeared to believe it was their reporting on the Jamie Oliver campaign and surrounding furore which was the determining factor in the Governments policy implementation (Edwards & Edwards 2005 Daily Mirror), however the Government was already in the process of tackling issues involving nutrition and the standards in school canteens. Naik claims that media attention may, however, have been a catalyst in speeding up policy agendas, and highlighting areas which had not received as much attention previously. In time, there was also recognition of difficulties faced by implementing a nationwide Healthy School Policy, issues being budgetary, contract clauses with catering companies, and the transfer of responsibility from LEA to the school itself. Previous research showed how the Healthy Eating Initiative began in the years prior to Oliver’s campaign.
Although his tireless work improving school dinners certainly brought the idea to the forefront of peoples minds, studies into nutritional standards and promoting healthy living had been in existence for some time. A great deal of research on the diets of primary school children focussed mainly on conceptual perceptive of how food affects health and well being (Caplan 1997; Dixey et al. 2001; Edwards & Hartwell 2002; Gibson et al 1998 cited in Lakin 2008). These studies concluded that there is often limited understanding by children regarding the effect of nutrients on the body and there is a need to increase awareness of healthy eating practices (Bullen 2004). Introducing health education in schools is one method used to increase this awareness – a large percentage of schools have been awarded “Healthy School Status” whereby they must demonstrate evidence of best practice in four main areas, using a holistic or whole school approach.
These specific areas are healthy eating, personal, social and health education (PSHE), emotional well-being, and exercise. Nevertheless, certain behaviours and attitudes particularly those outside of school can play a vital role in influencing dietary choices. These factors may be family opinion, demographic, and the economic climate including food costs (Freeman & Bunting 1999; Worsley 2006). It has also been concluded, that health promoting schools which model good behaviour and whole school best practice are a critical influence on children’s behaviour and actions (Wallsten et al 2005). Through encouragement and adult guidance, children will become motivated and empowered to make their own decisions based on a sound understanding of nutrition and health issues (Lakin & Littledyke 2008).
A study by Walton et al in 2010 theorised how socio-ecological views can affect children’s healthy eating habits. They state that this perspective anticipates how changing school-based food programmes and canteen environments will have a greater influence on children’s diets, as opposed to attempting to target individual children (French & Wechsler 2004). In support of this opinion, Walton et al discovered through previous studies (Shaya et al 2008; Sharma 2006) that many school-based food strategies have attempted to alter behaviours, and provided mixed results regarding nutritional intake. Notwithstanding, more recent efforts to augment the school meal policies have so far shown a positive outcome on children’s diets and overall knowledge of nutrition and health (Leviton 2008; Bere et al 2007).
In concluding, although Jamie Oliver raised awareness of the issue of poor school meals standards, there is a multitude of research studies and academic reports to show that not only was the issue of failing nutritional standards already on Government agendas, there had been many policies implemented to tackle the problem, culminating with food standards and introduction of the School Meals Review Panel, all prior to Oliver’s documentaries. It is true to say that Oliver’s efforts have been successful, perhaps the most famous accomplishment was the death knell for the Turkey Twizzler, and certainly many school meals are healthier as a result of his campaign. Nevertheless, it is important to realise that changing menus alone will not achieve improved health of children, moreover it is educating them with correct information to make informed choices, and change eating behaviours which will end childhood obesity and create a healthier nation.
The most appropriate research to undertake was to gauge opinions of those who experienced school dinners of previous decades, compared with those of today. As previous research concludes, children do not always comprehend the importance of nutrition and are concerned mostly with appearance and taste. Based on this, I decided to ascertain what today’s children enjoy most about school dinners, what they would like to see on the menu, and for older children, what they understand by “healthy eating”,
In qualitative methodologies, some important suppositions have been made regarding construction of knowledge, each of the points antithetic from the empiric-analytic
model (Lincoln & Guba 1985). The assumptions of qualitative paradigms are that there are many differing perceptions of reality, through a person’s involvement and attribution of meaning to an event, and the entire process of inquiry cause both researcher and participant to be mutualist, as opposed to independence of quantitative research. Cognition is dependent on time and context, and sources a depth of understanding rather than universal generalisation of the quantitative methodologies (Domholdt, 1993). Describing and interpreting events has proven more useful than controlling them through quantitative research, to establish cause and effect. A final point Lincoln & Guba raise is that inquiry is value bound, meaning values appear in the manner by which questions are asked and subsequently how results are interpreted.
This study was based around a qualitative methodology. Questionnaires were selected, as the research required real opinions of pupils regarding school meals. In essence, there was little need for statistical, numerical data, the focus being formulation of a discussion (Brannen 1992). Questionnaires were issued children attending a local primary school, and were designed appropriately for each Key Stage (Appendix C & D). Ethical considerations were sought – parental consent obtained, children were informed about the nature of the study, made aware it was non compulsory, and guaranteed anonymity. Questionnaires were returned without name, therefore there was no means of identification by handwriting alone. I decided against the use of interviews with the children, as recording the information can be time consuming, more difficult to accurately record, and above all would not result in the anonymity that the children were assured (Carlson et al 2000).
Previous researchers, such as Siddell (2003), suggest there should be basic rules made when designing a questionnaire – this information was utilised, as questionnaires were succinct and designed for children to understand with clear, non-ambigous wording. There were questions which required opinions and did not easily allow assumptions to be made, something which should also be a consideration (Oppenheim cited in Sidell 2003). It is important to understand that questions asked within research projects introduce beliefs and focus of an enquiry, and also have an influence in deciding the knowledge which will be yielded (Higgs et al. 2007). A selected topic of research can be investigated through many different questions, and when designing research, it is important to think about the desired knowledge acquisition, and ask appropriate questions in order to gain the required information.
This method was chosen to explore personal opinions, and the nature of the study was conducive to this method. Qualitative research is also ideally suited to naturalistic environments, such as schools, which was further reason for implementing this methodology. Qualitative research also has adaptability, in so much as if meal policies had changed during the study, the questions could have been amended easily to reflect policy changes. Qualitative research methodologies have validity, meaning findings from collected data are appropriate, useful and purposeful (Fraenkel & Wallen, 1994).
However, it is not true to say that qualitative research is without disadvantages. This method is often subjective, and questions could be related to personal thoughts and experiences, and in some cases data has a lower reliability than other methods, as research can be more difficult to replicate owing to the unstructured arrangement and standard processes. The limitations I deduced, were that questionnaires were designed to be short and child friendly, and as such there were a limited number of possible questions, and there was no guarantee of children’s answers being individual opinions. It has to be assumed that the answers are true and not copied from peers, however this is difficult to ascertain as the questionnaires were filled out anonymously and without observation.
I decided against quantitative methodologies, which are concerned with collection of numerical data, analysed by statistics and are unconcerned with ‘in-depth’ information and personal opinion (Silverman 2000). Although such methods establish cause and effect relationships between data sets, and are highly reliable, the method is too scientific for this study. The answers required individual, personal opinions which quantitative methods do not allow for.
Quantitative researchers test hypotheses as opposed to investigate societal questions and issues, (Filmer 1972 as cited in Silverman 2000), regarding quantitative methodologies as a positivist approach, whereby theories are tested in an attempt to ameliorate predictive knowledge of a phenomenon. In agreement with this, Orlikowski & Baroudi (1991 cited in Myers 1997) categorised research as positivist in nature where there were propositions, measurable covariants, testing of hypotheses, and gathering logical thought regarding phenomena from a sample to stated populous. Nonetheless most quantitative researchers debate this suggestion, as they do not intend to create scientific laws, moreover uncover generalisations by collating relevant data.
QUESTIONNAIRE RESULTS AND ANALYSES
4.1 Key Stage One Questionnaires
The questionnaires were distributed to class teachers, who carried out a discussion with the children who regularly eat school meals. This data is qualitative, in that there are no real statistics owing to the small numbers of participants. However, there are many valuable opinions of the children, and all seemed very enthusiastic about their school dinners!
Asked if they enjoyed school dinners, answers from years Reception, 1 and 2 was a resounding “yes”. This was also the same response when asked if they found adequate choice on the menu of what they like to eat.
The children were asked what they enjoyed the most about school meals. Answers were recorded by the teachers using key words throughout the discussion. This data was largely unsuitable for tabulation, as there were so many answers, and few duplicates. Answers given for this question include:
Specific meals – such as Fish and Chip Fridays or Roast Chicken on a Wednesday
Enjoying a hot meal
“Yummy” Main Courses
A couple of the answers were interesting in so much as one pupil commented on how their favourite aspect of the school meals was “sitting with their friends”, suggesting enjoyment of the social aspect – an agreeing point raised by Turner et al, and Ross in their 1995 studies. A study by the School Food Trust regarding parental attitudes saw the conclusion drawn that parents like their child to have a school meal, as they can sit with friends (School Food Trust 2011). Another answer given was “getting a sticker for eating it all”, showing how this pupil took pleasure from the reward of a simple sticker for finishing their meal, and another display of how the school encourages children to eat sensibly.
The children were also asked if they could have any dinner, what would that be, and there were a variety of different answers, some more common than others. The exact amount of children within the focus group who responded to this question is unknown, making charting of these answers difficult. Popular answers, which were mentioned more than once within the focus group, were:
Chicken Nuggets and Chips
Burger and Chips
Pizza and Chips
Other answers included take away brands such as Kentucky Fried Chicken, and McDonald’s, whereas some children selected sweet foods, such as
“variety of ice cream flavours” “pancakes” and “lollipops”.
Savoury choices were such meals as
“ roast dinner” “chicken and rice” and “chilli”
The children in this Key stage range from 4 to 7 years old, and as such the younger children were less likely to have grasped the concept of healthy eating, compared with their Key Stage 2 peers, who are aged 7 to 11. When comparing answers given by Key Stage 1 and 2 children, regarding a choice of meal they would like to eat, the younger children seemed to be more positive towards such foods as chips, burgers and high sugar desserts. Some of the older children, who have an increased awareness of healthy-eating, chose less chip-based meals, instead opting for casseroles, fish based meals and risotto, although it has to be noted that burgers and hot dogs were still mentioned in several questionnaires.
4.2 Key Stage 2 Questionnaires
These questionnaires were distributed to 100 children across Years 3 to 6, who regularly eat school meals, with a return of 74%. Children were advised that this was not obligatory, and anonymity was guaranteed. The children completed the questionnaires, answering 6 questions regarding the school meals, and their perception of healthy-eating overall. I have analysed the results as a mixture of quantitative data (the number of respondents for each question or aspect) and qualitative data, where the description is unsuitable for statistical analysis and requires a narrative approach.
1). What do you like best about school dinners?
There were some repeat answers given for this question, with a number of pupils stating that their favourite aspect of school dinners was dessert, overall menu variety, and a similar amount of pupils enjoying certain meals on certain days (for example, the Friday Fish and Chips, and Wednesday roast meats). The desserts on the menu vary – fresh fruit is available every day as an option, however pupils may select a cake based dessert such as sponge cake or Bakewell tart, or traditional ‘puddings’ such as rhubarb crumble.
Some children commented that they could enjoy a hot meal, and an equal number stated that they particularly liked the friendly canteen staff. The provision of a hot meal was also a parental concern in the SFT 2011 study, displaying how parental attitudes can reflect in their children. Overall taste was important, although no pupil mentioned appearance of the food, suggesting this is not an important factor. Provided the food is tasty, served by friendly staff, and varies sufficiently in choice, this is enough to create a successful lunchtime environment. Of course, some children did not provide an answer here, and it must be assumed there is no specific aspect they like, or wanted to state.
2). How many times a week do you have a school dinner?
Straightforwardly, children were asked to circle a number from 1 – 5 representing the frequency of their weekly school meal consumption. A high percentage eat school meals 5 times per week, some 63.5% of those surveyed. Eating a school dinner each day gives an excellent opportunity to select a range meals from the menus, although it cannot be ascertained if these children ate a variety of different foods, or the same or similar meals over a two week period.
Certainly the amount of pupils eating school meals every day suggests parental satisfaction with the choice and quality of the food, value for money and their children’s satisfaction. The question must be asked, if the menu was not as varied, and the food was of a lesser quality, would the children be as happy to eat it, and would the parents be as happy to pay for it? A question which could be answered with further investigation of the school meals standards in Britain today.
3). Is there a meal you would like to see on the menu? If so, what is it?
The response rate on this questionnaire was 56 out of the 74 returned (75.6%).
Interestingly, there is a high proportion of such meals as pizza and chips, and burger and chips. There has naturally been a reduction in chip based meals since National Standards were introduced in 2001, and children in Key Stage 2, particularly Year 6, will remember meals prior to these standards, where such meals would have been served. This may be the reason behind their answers, as these meals no longer feature on the menu.
Previous studies of a similar nature have drawn like conclusions – children, regardless of age, have a tendency to prefer foods which are deemed ‘unhealthy’ in today’s society, which reiterates the point for school-based intervention and health education to encourage healthy choices regarding food (Harper & Wood 2008).
4). Do you have enough choice on the menu?
The majority of children felt there was sufficient menu choices, 78%. The remaining 22% thought there could be more choice of meals each week.
5). How would you describe “healthy eating”.
This question was asked as I felt that it would ascertain children’s understanding of the value and importance of healthy eating. Answers varied in the vocabulary used, but the majority commented on balanced diets, eating less sugar and salt, and more fruit and vegetables.
There were some trends amongst answers, the most popular being:
Despite some children providing no answer, there is plenty of indication that the children have an understanding of healthy eating, perhaps not the deep-rooted scientific reasoning behind it, but the basic concept. Specific answers which could not be grouped all showed this understanding, particularly one which stated that the pupil understood healthy eating as
“Having the right amount of everything, not having too much sugar, and having loads of fruit”
Certainly it is evident that many pupils felt eating balanced meals, with plenty of fruit and vegetables was the key to a healthy diet, and some other specific answers added to this with descriptions of
“low fat, salt, and sugar” and “fresh foods”.
One pupil thought about activity as a concept of healthy eating, and as well as eating a balanced diet, we should be “burning calories”. Interestingly, another pupil has grasped the concept of portioning, and defined healthy-eating as “not having big meals” – portion control being a major issue in the rise of childhood obesity.
Judging by responses of Key Stage 2 pupils, they have a sound understanding of what constitutes healthy-eating, a concept that the school has worked hard to reinforce, through the healthy school status it possesses, and topics that the children become involved in. Noble’s 2001 study also concluded similar answers, that children viewed healthy-eating as food that “is good for you” and contains “vitamins” (page 112). Noble concluded, as Turner had also previously, that children perceived healthy foods as those which facilitate growth and “give you energy” (page 112).
A frequent misconception children hold is that merely fruit and vegetables represents healthy eating (Riley 2007). Riley’s study also found that although children were familiar with ‘vitamins’ and their association with food, the actual function of vitamins within the body was beyond their knowledge. Some children surveyed in this study stated “vitamins and minerals” as being their perception of healthy eating, although it cannot be assumed this equals awareness of vitamins’ functions. Maybe, as Riley poses, this is indicative that nutritional knowledge children possess is fragmented and the reasons why we should eat a balanced diet, inclusive of meats, dairy produce and cereals as well as fruits and vegetables is unfamiliar. This gives scope for further research, into children’s understanding of how vitamins and minerals affect bodily function, and why they are necessary within a balance diet.
On reflection, should I carry out another similar study, I would have written this question with a choice of answers, in an ‘all that apply’ format. I would have listed aspects of healthy-eating, for the children to select. This would have made the data easier to analyse, and ensured my study reflected answers I wanted to analyse, rather than random answers. This self criticism is part of ongoing personal development and learning, which I will carry forward to further study.
6). If you could change one thing about school dinners, what would that be?
23% of the pupils who completed the survey felt there was nothing they could change, however a further 20% declined to answer. It could be assumed that they too felt there was nothing specific they would like to see changed, and so the figure combined would account for just under half of pupils surveyed. This suggests meal standards are to the pupils liking, and quantities are sufficient. There were many ‘predictable’ answers – “larger portions” accounts for 10% of the populous surveyed, and “more choice/better choice” was stated by 9% of pupils.
Naturally meals, choice and portion sizes are not going to be favourable to every pupil. This can result from portion sizes provided in home environments, and quality and variety of food they eat at home. The same can be said for the pupils who suggested they would like more to drink with their meal. Not every pupil consumes the same amount of liquid daily, or at meal times, and schools must cater for the majority. Children have access to water fountains and personal water bottles throughout the day, and a possibility here is that when squash based drinks are offered, pupils would like more as they can only drink water at other times during the day. I would therefore conclude here that “more to drink” actually equates to “more flavoured squash”.
Other aspects quoted are regarding the “lining up” procedure, however this is not based upon the actual meals, moreover the lunchtime routine and procedure, which is fair, based on the amount of meals that are taken within the school. Once again, pupils hunger levels differ, and some may resent queuing or being last, whilst others can happily wait in line.
A small percentage of pupils stated they would like to select meals daily, rather than order in advance. The main issue with this is that the school prides itself on using fresh ingredients, cooked to order based on forward planning from menu selections. This allows the Chef to prepare what is needed, reducing waste and costs. This also saves time in the kitchen, ensuring all food is prepared to the highest standards. Ordering daily would take the canteen back to the days of pre-packaged food, or food requiring advance preparation due to time constraints, and would almost certainly lead to a lesser quality meal, in addition to the fact that this system may lead to food ‘running out’ and hence pupils not having a full choice if they were at the back of the queue.
4.3 Headteachers questions
The Headteacher’s opinion of school meals is one I highly valued, and an important aspect to this study. The school possesses ‘Healthy School’ status, and takes great pride in educating children about health and well-being in addition to academic subjects. Health education is now a part of the daily curriculum, and the Headteacher states that through Science lessons, Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) and Physical Education (P.E) staff ensure measures are taken to effectively educate children on the importance of healthy eating and the effects on the body. When asked if children were responsive to this, the answer was “yes, very”, proving the lessons are effective and children are retaining the information.
The opinion the Headteacher has regarding the menus, is that they are very good, with a wide choice available. In fact, she raises the point that uptake of school dinners has increased vastly. Previously, dinners were taken by around 60 pupils, whereas now the figure exceeds 260 per day on average. This is a testament to the improvement of meals, and the quality and choice provided. Nationally, uptake of school meals has also increased in recent years since they were revolutionised (School Food Trust Survey 2011 – See Appendix F). However, when asked about the situation regarding School Lunch Grants (a dedicated fund utilised by LEA’s for provision of school meals) no longer being ring-fenced (see Appendix G), the Headteacher felt it was a pity, and that “some schools will lack provision and coverage”, which is likely to be through lack of funding, and may even cause an increase in meal prices, or a drop in quality.
The pupil questionnaires concluded that meals are received extremely well, adequate choice is provided, and the standard is more than acceptable. This is a view the Headteacher shares, as she states that although there is still some wastage, children seem to genuinely enjoy the meals, which is evident through the increase in uptake. Naturally there will always be wastage in a school environment – appetites differ, and some children may select a menu item that they have not tried before, and simply not like the taste.
A final question I put to the Headteacher was whether there was anything in particular that she would like to introduce or see improved regarding school meals. In response to this question, she quotes that there could be
“larger portions, but we are conscious of keeping the price down”.
A small number of children, as if in agreement, requested larger portions, however cost must be considered. The current meal price is £2 per day, in line with the National averages, providing larger portions would certainly cause a cost increase. This may force parents to reconsider meals, and lead to a decline in uptake. As the majority are happy with portion size, certainly quality over quantity is the overriding factor here.
1. 4.4 Generational Comparison of School Meals
The response rate for the questionnaires was 16 out of 25 issued, or 64%.
The respondents were parents from the school who agreed to take part in the survey. Answers were given over a brief, structured interview, allowing me to fully gauge opinions and memories of school dinner experiences.
The uptake of school meals every day was 10 out of the 16 across the generations, with 4 of those surveyed eating a school meal between 1 and 4 times per week, and 2 unable to remember.
Memories of school dinners were naturally clearer to some, dependent on how long ago they attended school. However one respondent stated that in 1940’s schools, if meals were not fully eaten, children were segregated as punishment. This certainly left a bad memory with this individual, and no doubt the other children who received such punishment. Other respondents from the 1960’s and 1970’s commented on lack of choice, so
“if you didn’t like it, you went without”
The food generally consisted of stews, vegetables, fruit pies and sponge pudding with custard, all of which tasted “bland”. More than one respondent commented on the smell of “boiled cabbage” in the canteen, and staff seemed “dour and harassed “ (full quotations from some respondents in Appendix I). The difference by the 1980’s and 1990’s is evident, as those surveyed from these decades found the meals enjoyable, with a good choice, and canteen staff were friendly and “always lovely” Foods from these generations included
“pie, pizza, chips, burgers, treacle sponge and custard, jam roly poly”
Memories were of meals served on plastic trays, with the opportunity for ‘seconds’ if there was sufficient food.
Interestingly, those from the 1980’s and 1990’s enjoyed meals more than previous generations. They felt nothing could have been different, except that dinners could have been healthier – perhaps reflecting on healthy-eating messages conveyed in today’s society. The era’s pre 1980’s all seemed to wish there had been more choice, and certainly more fresh fruit and salads available. This is now a choice offered to schoolchildren daily – there is always a fresh fruit dessert and daily salad bar.
Of those surveyed, there was a difference in location of schools they attended (Appendix J), however this does not affect answers, as experiences were not dependent on County, moreover the decade has the most effect on answer differentials. The only exception to the rule here, is that urban schools, being larger and with perhaps higher budgets for meals, provided more choice than rural schools – London schools in the 1960’s, for example, provided a choice of 3 mains and 2 desserts daily. This is similar to today’s, the only difference being meals are more nutritionally balanced in today’s canteens, with salads and breads in addition to the main meals.
As school meals are healthier nowadays, respondents were asked if they wished their dinners had been healthier, depicting once again a divide amongst generations. Those who consumed school meal pre 1960’s believed meals could certainly have been healthier, with the introduction of salads, however as the country was still recovering from World War 2, one former pupil commented that “the effects of rationing were still being felt”. The generations of the 1970’s to the 1990’s felt meals were adequate as, in the words of a pupil from the 1990’s, they could “eat more healthily at home”.
There is now a wide selection of food on school menus including salads, starchy foods, and a reduction of chips and sauces. A factor which proves the success of revitalised menus is the increase in uptake from 60 per day a few years ago, to now over 240 per day. The fresh, local ingredients ensure that the food is kept to a high standard, and by pre-selection of the meals on a fortnightly basis, the school can forward plan to ensure wastage is kept to a minimum by cooking only what is needed.
Children in Key Stage 2 have an understanding of ‘healthy-eating’, which was evident in their answers, however in analysing the question’s effectiveness, it could have been improved to gauge a clearer picture of their perceptions. It would have been more useful and provided more accurate results if, as the researcher, I held a focus group, enabling me to judge whether the opinions were individual to the child, rather than seeing questionnaires with identical answers which may have been copied, or filled out in collaboration. This is a difficult aspect to judge, however, as questionnaires were anonymous, and could have shown identical answers from different children in different classes. Obtaining answers in person, however, would remove such elements of doubt.
In assessing opinions of the previous generations, it became clear that meals were bland, with little choice available. By the 1980’s and 1990’s, the meal standards had improved in choice and taste, although this may have been down to the fact that the food was high in saturates, and consisted of chips, and stodgy puddings with lashings of custard. However tasty these were, and obviously appealing to children, health values were definitely of a poor standard. This prompted the drastic reworking of nutrition policies, and formation of the School Food Trust. The trust, in addition to Governments National Standards of nutrition and accentuated by Jamie Oliver’s campaign of 2005, has worked tirelessly to improve the calibre and nutritional value of school meals, and as this study proves, this is well received by the children who eat the meals in today’s society.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FURTHER RESEARCH
Scope for further research would be to ascertain where children acquire knowledge of health and nutrition, and also the worth they put on this information. It could also be a useful element to additional research to gauge the eating habits of the same children in their home environment. This would allow researchers a holistic picture of eating habits, and whether the health education children receive is a knowledge shared by their parents. This study could further develop by comparison of not only food, but also physical activity both in and away from the school setting, completing the picture of health and well-being.
Certainly if the study were to be replicated, it would be more useful to enlist a broader range of schools, perhaps including both rural and urban. Although this would be more costly in terms of time and may require a different approach – such as conducting interviews with children (adhering to much stricter ethical issues and gaining required consent) and observing a meal service in the different schools. This would give a more accurate picture of today’s meal systems and opinions rather than using a single school. If questionnaires were used, it would be advantageous to use multiple choice options, rather than leaving questions open to opinion. This would allow a clearer analysis of answers, and hopefully deter children from missing out questions through lack of understanding, or not feeling able to express themselves properly.
Teaching staff and other professionals should be aware of the growing preponderance of behaviour and habits which are damaging to children’s well-being, and through lessons and health education must understand the perspectives held by children regarding their health. They must develop knowledge through a wide range of activities and scientific concepts through the Primary School journey. Children should be given the chance to gain appropriate skills and knowledge through which they will make sustained and positive decisions regarding their own well-being and taking responsibility for their own actions.
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