Schools seeking a healthy option

At a time when the health of the nation has been at the forefront of election campaigning, with Tony Blair reinforcing his pledge to spend an additional £280m to improve school dinners, market research company ACNielsen can reveal that significant changes in the way our children are being fed are already beginning to take effect.

Information from ACNielsen’s Catering Wholesale Service, which captures sales into the canteens delivered by some of the largest wholesalers such as 3663 and Brakes, demonstrates that some dramatic changes are already taking place.

Sales of foods such as frozen chips, frozen turkey, chocolate and crisps and snacks to education have all shown significant declines in the year to March 12 versus the same period last year (see table 1). Meanwhile, sales of healthier foods and drinks such as water, untreated fresh poultry, natural fresh fish and drinking yogurt have all shown sales increases (see table 2).

The government launched its Healthy Living Blueprint For Schools last September with its emphasis on ensuring that the food and drink available across the school day reinforced the healthy lifestyle message.

However it appears that Jamie Oliver’s more recent assault on unhealthy school dinners has had a bigger and more immediate impact.

Following a year of constant media interest in health and obesity in children, it seems that the flurry of interest surrounding the Channel 4 programme has caused education establishments to reassess their meal offerings.

Jamie Oliver’s ‘Feed Me Better’ internet petition, which has been signed by more than 271,000 people, calls for qualifications for dinner ladies, increasing the nutritional content of school meals, more money to be spent on meals for children and more time for catering staff to prepare meals.

The levels of declines themselves are telling but what is more significant is the proportion of the top 15 declining foodstuffs that are considered ‘unhealthy’. Indeed the biggest falling sub-category within frozen turkey was the treated kids shaped turkey, an indication that the much-maligned Turkey Twizler may have suffered. Areas that have traditionally done well within schools and colleges but have come under the obesity microscope, such as crisps, snacks and confectionery, have also fallen.

The main beneficiaries have been categories with a healthier element. ‘De-skilling’ in the school kitchen has been a trend for a number of years, however growth in untreated poultry and natural fish suggests a move back to preparing meals from ‘scratch’.

The increase in mineral water sales is indicative of what is happening in other areas, such as the workplace, and is a habit that parents can easily pass on to their children.

The delivered wholesalers have made concerted efforts over the last year to address the issue of unhealthy eating. Brakes has launched its Healthier Choices range with reduced levels of fat, sodium and sugar while the launch of its ready to eat fruit bags had been its most successful new product launch into that sector to date. 3663 is also committed to reducing salt levels by 50% in all own-label/branded products by November 2005.

It remains to be seen whether or not declines of this size will continue. A third-term Labour government is committed to setting up a new Schools Fund Trust, with £60m set aside to advise schools on how to improve meals. However anecdotal evidence suggests that children and some parents have been less than thrilled by the changes to the menu. Some children simply will not eat the healthier options while others cannot even recognise basic fruit or vegetables.

Jamie Oliver’s School Dinners programme has brought home to parents the reality about what their children eat at school, and as school only accounts for 15% of a child’s time, so parents also have a responsibility in ensuring that children are eating healthy and nutritious meals. Schools, in the short term at least, have made steps to encourage children to eat more healthily.

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