School caterers’ role in childhood obesity - William Murray

To say we’re staring down the barrel of a childhood obesity epidemic is frankly a lie. We’re already in it. But, in the war on childhood obesity, caterers sit on the front line.

School’s out for summer, but that doesn’t mean Ofsted is relaxing in the sweltering summer sun.

In August 2016, the government published ‘Childhood obesity: a plan for action’ – a plan to reduce childhood obesity by supporting healthier choices. Two years later and Ofsted recently released its ‘Obesity, healthy eating and physical activity in primary schools’ report which looks at what primary schools are doing to tackle childhood obesity, how they encourage a healthy lifestyle and what food kids are eating.

Obesity: from a problem to an epidemic

Nearly a quarter of children in England are obese or overweight by the time they start primary school at five-years-old. By the time they leave school at 11, this figure grows to a third.[i] With obesity-related conditions costing the NHS over £6bn a year[ii], to say we’re staring down the barrel of an obesity epidemic is frankly a lie. We’re in it.

As the Ofsted report reveals, up to 60% of obese school children become obese adults. If a healthy diet and approach to physical activity isn’t instilled at an early age, it’s a hard way of life to snap out of. That’s why this report matters so much.

The role of schools

When it comes to getting kids to eat well, the pressure doesn’t sit solely on schools, but they play a vital role in serving healthy food. Thankfully, while this report shows there are still improvements to be made, there are also some great strides being made when it comes to healthy eating.

  • 59% of schools have a food plan
  • All but two schools provided employees with training on healthy living in the past two years
  • 89% of schools had some timetabled curriculum time for healthy eating
  • 80% of children say they have learned ‘a lot’ or ‘quite a bit’ about healthy eating
  • 51% of parents say that the school had helped their child in making healthy choices about eating ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’, rising to 59% for healthy choices about physical activity

But, while education about what to eat has improved, actual take-up of school meals sits at 43% – a figure Ofsted describes as “stubbornly low”. This is despite school meals providing a great opportunity for schools, in both disadvantaged and wealthy areas. The report explains: “It would be economic good sense for schools if more children took up school meals. The government has made a significant financial commitment to providing free infant school meals. It is very puzzling why this is offer has lower take-up in disadvantaged areas compared with wealthier ones.”

And as Tim Blowers, Chair of LACA – the lead association for catering in education – says, it’s not just schools that would benefit. He said: “As the report outlines, ‘universal infant free school meals’ in particular save parents money while providing a hot and healthy meal to children, and we agree that as many parents as possible should be encouraged to take this up”.

A fight from all fronts

The report shows that childhood obesity is being fought on two-sides. On one side, schools are providing a higher level of education on what makes a healthy lifestyle. On the other, caterers are doing their bit to provide healthy, interesting and exciting food. This year’s LACA Main Event revealed how caterers are more focused than ever on health and sustainability – read our round up of the event to learn more.

But as Amanda Spielman, chief inspector at Ofsted, says, there are “too many factors beyond the school gate” to suggest that it all rests on what happens at school. She continues: “We must also recognise that schools cannot provide a silver bullet for all societal ills. Teachers and school leaders are already stretched; they should not be held responsible for an issue that requires concerted action across the board. Families, government, industry, and other parts of the public sector all have a role to play in making food and drink healthier, and supporting children to make better choices.”

To win the war on childhood obesity, everyone needs to play their part. Caterers and teachers are both sat on the front line doing what they can, but they need support.

Thanks to William Cook, head of nutrition and dietetics, Elior, for key stats and insight on diet, health and obesity in the UK.

[i] NHS Digital. (2017). National Child Measurement Programme 2016/17

[ii] Public Health England. (2018). Health Matters: Obesity and the food environment

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