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Food for Thought: child nutrition, the school dinner and the food industry
Derek Gillard
June 2003

copyright Derek Gillard 2003
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Health experts are now seriously concerned that the diet of our children is unbalanced, with too much salt, sugar and fat and not enough fruit and vegetables. New Labour has sought to address the problem with a raft of 'healthy-eating' initiatives and nutritional standards for school meals. But is it doing enough? In this article, I recount the history of the school dinner and offer some suggestions for future government policy.

Nutrition and poverty in the 19th century

In the latter half of the nineteenth century concerns began to be expressed about the terrible conditions in which most people lived. Central government responded by passing laws to ensure clean water supplies, better houses and education. City Corporations began providing water and drains, refuse disposal and cleaner streets, parks, public baths, libraries and schools. These improvements made a significant difference to health and quality of life - there were no serious outbreaks of cholera after 1865, for example. Yet at the end of the century statisticians pointed out that the health of some people - and particularly children - was no better than it had been during the horrors of the Industrial Revolution. Child mortality was still 150 per 1,000 births. (Today it is about 8 per 1000).

The real problem was poverty. Charles Booth's huge survey of the poor of London between 1889 and 1903 showed that about a quarter of the population simply didn't have enough money to live on, and Seebohm Rowntree's survey of working class families in York in 1901 reported that almost half of the wage-earning population of the city could not afford enough food to keep them 'physically efficient'. As a result of this poverty, and because many parents didn't understand nutrition, children were not getting a proper diet.

The first school meals


Children queuing for the Salvation Army's 'Farthing Breakfasts' c.1900
(picture from The National Archives: School Dinners)

In 1879 Manchester began to provide free school meals to 'destitute and badly nourished children'. A similar scheme was operated in Bradford from where School Board member Fred Jowett and his colleague Margaret McMillan lobbied for government legislation to encourage all education authorities to provide meals. McMillan argued that if the state insisted on compulsory education, it must take responsibility for the proper nourishment of school children. The London School Board and others began to provide cheap or free school dinners, as did the Salvation Army and other philanthropic organisations. They had all learned the simple fact that hungry children cannot learn.

As is so often the case, however, little action was taken at a national level until the situation adversely affected Britain's ability to fight wars. The army was shocked to discover that more than a third of the young men volunteering to serve in the 1899 Boer War were too small, undernourished or ill to fight. There was enormous concern about how Britain was going to be able fight wars in the future. A 'Committee on Physical Deterioration' was set up.

1906 Education (Provision of Meals) Act

The Liberal government of 1906 was committed to reform. This was partly because the newly-formed Labour Party had just had its first MPs elected and the Liberals were anxious to be seen to be meeting the needs of working people. One of the new Labour MPs was Bradford's Fred Jowett, who used his maiden speech to launch a campaign for school meals. The Education (Provision of Meals) Act of 1906 allowed - but did not require - local authorities to provide school meals.

1921 Education Act - free meals

The 1921 Education Act set out the circumstances in which children were to be eligible for free school meals but the new rules were immediately thrown off course by the miners' strike of that year, which led to a threefold increase in the cost of providing meals - to almost 1m. The Board of Education introduced a rationing system in an attempt to limit the cost to central government to 300,000. This placed an arbitrary limit on the number of children who could have free meals - something a number of government officials suspected was illegal. The rationing system hit poor areas disproportionately hard. In 1935 Board of Education inspectors found that at Jarrow less than half of those considered malnourished received meals, at Gateshead only a third, while at Whitehaven only 55 of the 400 malnourished children received meals (Webster 1985:216).

Local authorities had been very slow in responding to the 1906 School Meals Act. In 1936 a survey of twenty-six LEAs where unemployment was above 25 per cent showed that out of a school population of half a million, less than 15,000 children (2.7 per cent) were receiving free meals. Eight of the authorities had no meals service at all. As late as 1939 less than half of all local authorities were providing a meals service. 130,000 meals were being served daily, reaching about 3 per cent of the school population.

World War II

Once again, war was the spur to greater activity. With the outbreak of the Second World War, 'raising the standards of the nation's health was recognised as an essential prerequisite for maintaining morale' (Webster 1997:192). Food rationing was introduced in 1940 as part of the war effort, partly to ensure fair distribution of the food that was available but also so that the government could ensure a healthy nation and a productive war machine. The school meals service was expanded under guidelines issued in 1940 and 1941.

By February 1945, more than 1.6m meals were being served daily to a third of the school population. Of these, 14 per cent were free, the rest being charged at 4d or 5d, the cost of the ingredients. Local authorities were subsidised for between 75 and 90 per cent of the cost.

1944 Education Act

The provision of school meals and milk finally became a statutory duty for local authorities under Section 49 of the 1944 Education Act. In 1945 Lord Woolton told the Warwickshire Women's Institute 'The young need protection and it is proper that the state should take deliberate steps to give them opportunity ... Feeding is not enough, it must be good feeding. The food must be chosen in the light of knowledge of what a growing child needs for building a sound body. And when the food is well chosen, it must be well cooked. This is a task that calls for the highest degree of scientific catering; it mustn't be left to chance' (quoted by Matthew Fort The Guardian 3 December 1999).

Labour 1945-1951

The Labour government of 1945-51 wanted to provide all meals free of charge but eventually decided that this was unrealistic on grounds of expenditure. Universal free school milk was introduced, however, in August 1946.

By 1951, 49 per cent of the school population ate school meals and 84 per cent drank school milk. It was not all good news, however. In her book The social services of modern England (1952), Penelope Hall noted that 'too often the premises are makeshift and overcrowded, the supervisors harassed, the meal bolted and the children hurried out to make room for a second batch' (quoted in Webster 1997:196).

Despite food rationing (which lasted until 1954) children in 1950 had healthier diets than their counterparts in the 1990s, according to a study by the Medical Research Council (James Meikle The Guardian 30 November 1999). Post-war four year olds had higher calcium and iron intakes through greater consumption of bread and milk, greens and potatoes. They ate and drank less sugar than children today. The government planners responsible for rationing and nutrition had done 'a stunningly good job' said the study's Director Michael Wadsworth. 'Not only did everyone get enough to eat, they got the right things ... This study shows that food and nutrient intake at the time was better than today. The higher amounts of bread, milk and vegetables consumed in 1950 are closer to the healthy eating guidelines in the 1990s. The children's higher calcium intake could have potential benefits for their bone health in later life while their vegetable consumption may protect them against heart and respiratory disease and some forms of cancer.'

Post-war children had higher calorie and fat intakes than four year olds forty years later, 'but it is also likely that the children would have been more active and consequently would have needed more energy than children today.'

The typical daily diet of a child in 1950 consisted of eggs or cereal with bread and butter for breakfast; meat, potatoes, a vegetable and a pudding for lunch; bread, butter and jam, cake and sometimes biscuits for tea; and milk last thing at night. Strawberries and rhubarb were the most frequently consumed fruits; fresh peas, lettuce and tomatoes the most commonly eaten vegetables.

Tories 1951-1964

When the Tories returned to power in 1951 they were disinclined to tinker with the social services set up by Labour. Indeed, in 1952 Financial Secretary to the Treasury John Boyd-Carpenter suggested that school meals were 'much the most socially valuable of all the Social Services'.

The price of a school meal was increased from 7d to 9d in 1953 - a move which led to a decline in uptake - but a circular issued in 1955 updated government advice on nutritional standards and stated that the school meal should be 'adequate in quantity and quality to serve as the main meal of the day.'

From 1956 onwards, however, the Tories began to look for cuts in public expenditure. The Treasury favoured charging the full economic price for a school meal - then 1s 9d. Minister of Education Quintin Hogg (pictured) was eventually forced to raise the price from 10d to 1s in April 1957, breaching for the first time the principle that the price should be limited to the cost of the raw materials. Further rises were considered in the early 1960s but political pressures (including an imminent general election) persuaded the government not to implement them.

Thirteen years of Conservative government had thus 'made little difference to the nutritional services' (Webster 1997:205) in the sense that their structure and character remained in place. However, there had been little or no development of the services and the erosion of subsidies had begun.

Labour 1964-1970

The return of a Labour government in 1964 did not prevent the Treasury from continuing its campaign for further reductions in government subsidies. Indeed, right from the start of the Wilson administration, it was clear that the Treasury 'was heavily committed in effect to increasing the school meals charge as much as possible as soon as possible' (Treasury memo, 24 November 1965, quoted in Webster 1997:206). An early proposal for a large increase was thrown out, but in 1968 the price went up from 1s to 1s 6d and in the following year to 1s 9d. Also in 1968, the supply of milk to children in secondary schools was ended.

By the end of the 1960s, absolute poverty had diminished, but 'the extent of the disadvantage of the poorest groups was far greater than was acceptable, and campaigners on behalf of family support and the poor were vocal in their complaints about the response of the Labour administration to the problem of poverty ... It is arguable that the actions of the Labour administration in 1968, rather than Thatcher's more notorious snatching of milk from primary schools, marked the beginning of the downward spiral of the nutritional programme' (Webster 1997:208).

Margaret Thatcher

In June 1970 Margaret Thatcher (pictured) became Secretary of State for Education in Ted Heath's new Conservative government. The economic outlook was bleak and the Tories were looking for cuts to meet their election pledges on tax. Shortly after the election, Heath wrote to his cabinet, telling them 'We shall need determination and a willingness among spending ministers to accept reductions in programmes which, from a departmental stand point, they would be reluctant to make.' In August 1970, Thatcher responded to a Treasury demand for education cuts in four areas: Further Education fees; Library book borrowing charges; School meal charges; Free school milk.

For someone who later became known for her enthusiasm for cutting public spending, she seems to have been remarkably concerned about the public perception of any cuts. On the demand to end free school milk, she said 'I think that the complete withdrawal of free milk for our school children would be too drastic a step and would arouse more widespread public antagonism than the saving justifies.' She proposed that milk should be available only to pupils in nursery and primary schools, a compromise which was later accepted. On increasing charges for school meals she wrote 'I think that we should proceed by fewer and larger steps so as to reduce the occasions for the inevitable recurrence of criticism whenever an increase is made in school meal charges. On this footing, I propose raising the charge to 12p next April and to 14p in April 1973; over the four year period 1971-74 this will produce 16m more in savings than would your own proposals.'

But at the Cabinet meeting of 15 September 1970 Mrs Thatcher was more enthusiastic about cuts to her department's bill. The minutes record that 'The Secretary of State for Education and Science said that she had been able to offer the Chief Secretary, Treasury, rather larger savings than he had sought on school meals, school milk, further education and library charges.' The cuts were worth 200m - though some of this would be ploughed back into primary schools. Two weeks later the Cabinet accepted the package (except the proposal on library fees) and the Secretary of State earned herself the title 'Thatcher Thatcher, Milk Snatcher!' (BBC News 1 January 2001)

The Thatcher governments 1979-1990

Thatcher's overwhelming desire to slash public spending became much clearer when she became Prime Minister in 1979. During her first year in power she finally killed off the provision of school milk. But she was to go on to do much greater damage.

Her right-wing government was bent on an orgy of privatisation of public services. Having disposed of school milk, the Tories went on to inflict a double blow on the school meals service itself. First, the 1980 Education Act abolished the minimum nutritional standards for school meals and removed the statutory obligation on LEAs to provide a meals service, requiring them only to provide food for children of families on supplementary benefit or family income supplement who were eligible for free meals. This disastrous decision was compounded by the introduction of Commercial Competitive Tendering, which obliged local authorities to choose the most 'competitive' (for which read 'cheap') catering on offer. As a result, private companies took over many school kitchens and, in order to maximise profit and eliminate waste, they persuaded schools to go over to free-choice cafeteria systems. The result, according to the Coronary Prevention Group, was the 'easy option of providing popular fast-food items such as burgers and chips' (Joanna Blythman The Guardian 23 July 1999).

Thatcher hadn't finished yet. The 1986 Social Security Act (which came into force in 1988) resulted in thousands of children losing their entitlement to free school meals.

Health concerns grow

Thatcher couldn't have destroyed the nutritional basis of school meals at a worse moment. The eighties and nineties saw a number of significant changes in British society. There were social changes, with greater mobility, more working mothers and Thatcher's own emphasis on the individual rather than the group. There were technological changes, including big increases in the use of the freezer and the microwave (leading to a reduction in home cooking), and the video and the computer (leading to a more sedentary lifestyle for many children). Commercial pressures resulted in the rise of the big supermarkets and a huge increase in television advertising. There was a rapid widening of the poverty gap, caused by Tory tax cuts and by their cynical use of unemployment as a political and economic tool. In education, the selling of school fields led to a decrease in physical activity, while the National Curriculum's effective abolition of Home Economics resulted in children leaving school with little interest in or understanding of food preparation. All these factors led to a huge change in the nation's diet, with much less fresh food being cooked at home and a much greater reliance on ready-made (and higher profit) meals.

1997 New Labour

By the time Labour - in the guise of 'New Labour' - returned to power in 1997, there was a mountain of evidence that the nation's - and especially children's - diets had become significantly less healthy, with excessive levels of sugar, salt and fat.

The National Heart Forum campaigned to increase the average daily consumption of vegetables and fruit from 250g to 400g a day and estimated that this would cut deaths from heart disease in the UK by thirty thousand a year (Chris Mihill The Guardian 25 March 1997).

The Medical Research Council reported that sugar consumption in Britain had risen by more than 30 per cent between 1980 and 2000. The UK, it said, was now the fattest European nation, with 17 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women considered clinically obese. It concluded that today's children were more at risk of developing osteoporosis, heart and respiratory diseases and some forms of cancer than their more deprived parents and grandparents (John Crace The Guardian 23 May 2000).

Studies of children in Saudi Arabia and Canada showed that a diet of junk food and inadequate quantities of fresh fruit and vegetables led to an increased risk of developing asthma (Tim Radford The Guardian 22 August 2000).

The Institute of Child Health reported that two-thirds of pre-school children had a poor diet heavily reliant on white bread, chips, crisps and sweets and that rates of obesity among children had doubled between 1980 and 2000 (Helen Carter The Guardian 6 August 2002).

A report in the American Journal of Paediatrics concluded that 'a TV in the child's bedroom is the strongest marker of increased risk of being overweight' (Kate Hilpern The Guardian 11 September 2002).

The National Health Service opened its first clinic to deal with the problem of childhood obesity (Jo Revill The Observer 3 November 2002).

Doctors at Bristol and Southampton warned that the rise in obesity was leading to a growing incidence of diabetes among teenagers (James Meikle The Guardian 21 February 2002).

Andrew Prentice, Professor of International Nutrition at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said parents might soon be outliving their children. 'Seriously obese children are losing up to nine years on average through diseases that were not as common among their parents' (Kate Hilpern The Guardian 11 September 2002).

The Fabian Society urged the government to ban advertisements for sweets and fizzy drinks targeted at children, and called for subsidies for food shops in 'food poor' neighbourhoods, compulsory cookery classes in schools and regular government advice to households on nutritious foods (John Carvel The Guardian 27 December 2002).

Labour's newly-created Food Standards Agency (FSA) warned that most children were eating more than the recommended levels of salt which could lead to health problems later in life, including high blood pressure. Processed food accounted for three-quarters of all the salt consumed. FSA Chair Sir John Krebs (pictured) urged the food industry to cut added salt levels. 'While consumers can add less salt at the table and in cooking, they cannot change the amounts in processed foods, which make up the highest proportion of our salt intake. This is the responsibility of the industry,' he said (Sarah Boseley The Guardian 15 May 2002).

Meanwhile, teachers viewed with increasing dismay the fat and sugar in their pupils' lunches and bemoaned the impossibility of explaining algebraic equations or irregular verbs to pupils who had gorged themselves on chips, doughnuts, marshmallows and cola (Joanna Blythman The Guardian 23 July 1999).

1997 survey of children's diets

One of the FSA's first tasks, in partnership with the Department of Health, was to conduct a detailed survey of young people's diet and nutrition - the first such survey in Britain since 1983.

Seventeen hundred children aged between four and eighteen were questioned. The report, published in June 2000, said children were eating too much junk food, less fresh fruit and vegetables than ever before and not taking enough exercise.

On average, children ate less than half the recommended daily amount of five portions of fruit and vegetables. One child in five hadn't eaten a single piece of fruit in the week in which the survey was carried out. The only good news was that consumption of fat was falling.

Children ate mostly processed or convenience foods. White bread, savoury snacks, crisps, biscuits, potatoes and chocolate featured strongly in their diet. Nine out of ten drank fizzy drinks. This 'junk' diet contained excessive amounts of salt and sugar. Children were getting a third of their energy from sugar. (The recommended level is eleven per cent). Boys consumed between 8.5g and 12.5g of salt a day. (The recommended daily intake is 6g).

Of particular concern, it was noted that children from poorer backgrounds had much worse diets, were fatter and did less exercise than children from better-off families. A survey by the Social Exclusion Unit had shown that on many low-income estates there was no access to shops selling affordable fruit and vegetables. FSA Deputy Chair Suzi Leather said diets increasingly indicated social exclusion. 'In some areas there is better access to, and more choice of, street drugs than fresh fruit and vegetables,' she said.

Responding to the survey, government ministers said they would ask food industry chiefs to 'tone down' the way they advertised fizzy drinks, crisps and snacks and help to promote healthy lifestyles instead. The industry was unimpressed. Its trade body, the Food and Drink Federation, said 'the ciabatta and sun-dried tomatoes set's patronising approach does not work' (Cherry Norton The Independent 2 June 2000; James Meikle The Guardian 2 June 2000).

Nutritional standards for school meals

The government announced that it would lay down nutritional guidelines under which school canteens must ensure a proper choice of four main categories of food - fruit and vegetables, meat and protein, starchy foods, and milk and dairy products. 'Children growing up on low incomes eat less fruit and vegetables than those on higher income, and they are more likely to be eating no fruit, vegetables or fruit juice at all,' said Public Health Minister Yvette Cooper. 'We need to make sure that fruit and vegetables are accessible and affordable to everyone.'

Education Secretary David Blunkett (pictured) issued a draft of the new regulations for school meals in the autumn of 1999. The rules - whose aim was to ensure that children had a balanced diet - would, as suggested, be based on providing a balance of food groups - starchy foods, fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. There would also be specific guidance on certain foods - in primary schools, for example, baked beans should not be served more than once a week and chips not more than three times a week. Fish should be on the menu at least once a week (David Ward The Guardian 15 December 1999).

There was widespread criticism of the government's approach. Unsurprisingly, the Tories didn't like the proposals at all and described them as 'Nanny Stateism'. But for almost everyone else, Blunkett's proposals did not go far enough.

The Commons Education Select Committee criticised the approach as too imprecise. 'The compulsory element of the regulations should be based on scientific, nutrient-based guidelines,' it said. 'Contracts with caterers should specify minimum nutritional standards which can readily be enforced. While we welcome the food groups approach as helpful, non-technical guidance for lay governors and parents, we are not persuaded that it is a suitable basis for statutory regulation.'

Food campaigners were not satisfied, either. Director of the National Heart Forum Imogen Sharp said it was not enough simply to specify food groups and restrict how often chips or baked beans were served. 'Nutrition-based standards would safeguard the content of meals on offer, give caterers flexibility and can also be measured and monitored. Only this way will we ensure that the hidden fat in school meals is reduced and that children consume adequate levels of nutrients, such as iron and calcium.' She urged ministers to 'be prescriptive in nutritional terms but not in food terms' and allow for local flexibility and local interpretation (David Ward The Guardian 15 December 1999).

Thames Valley University's Professor of Food Policy Dr Tim Lang said ministers had been seduced by the food industry. 'Parents don't want their children to eat a load of rubbish and they expect the government to set standards. It seems ministers are saying they cannot be prescriptive, cannot be seen to be nannies - when they are being astonishing nannies when it comes to the curriculum.'

Schools Minister Jacqui Smith responded 'While it is possible to strongly encourage the avoidance of unhealthy eating, it is not feasible to dictate precise nutritional portions or dietary prescriptions ... our standards will be flexible enough for caterers to provide the foods pupils like to eat. Parents can be assured that their children are able to have a healthy meal at school every day' (David Ward The Guardian 15 December 1999).

The Local Authority Caterers Association was, understandably, happy that the government's approach was less than prescriptive. 'Selection by nutrient content at the point of sale is a more difficult task for children whilst selection by food group enables them to make more sensible, balanced choices,' it said.


diagram: DfES

The nutritional standards for school meals - the first for twenty years - were eventually published on 12 July 2000 and became compulsory in April 2001.

The new rules specified that chips or other fried potatoes must not be served in primary schools more than three times a week and baked beans no more than once a week. Secondary schools would be able to offer chips every day, though a healthy alternative such as pasta must also be offered. Cheese could be served 'freely as a main protein dish', fresh fruit must be offered at least twice a week and fruit in a dessert daily. Plans to restrict how much of such food could be eaten in school dining rooms were dropped, as was a legal limit on the number of times red meat could appear on the menu (Rebecca Smithers The Guardian 13 July 2000).

The Child Poverty Action Group accused the government of selling out to the catering industry and said the guidelines should have been based on nutritional values. Campaigns officer Sue Brighouse said 'We think the caterers have won the day because what they are saying is that it would be too difficult to implement nutrition-based standards.'

The first monitoring of school caterers to ensure they are meeting the national nutritional standards will be undertaken this autumn (2003) and the DfES says it plans to 'work very closely' with schools that are not complying with them (Hilly Janes The Guardian 15 April 2003).

Other government initiatives

New Labour has pioneered a myriad of schemes designed to get children eating more healthily, including the National School Fruit Scheme, breakfast clubs, healthy tuck shops, improved access to drinking water, free milk for under-fives and a 'National Healthy School Standard' which encourages lifestyle-improving programmes. OFSTED and the FSA are to inspect school tuck shops, vending machines and neighbourhood chip shops, and monitor breakfast clubs, after-school clubs and school meals (including packed lunches) to see if they were contributing towards the growing problem of childhood obesity. There are to be trials of 'healthy drink' vending machines. Research is to be undertaken to improve lessons on food preparation, hygiene and the importance of a balanced diet, though, curiously, officials have stressed this will not be a return to home economics (James Meikle The Guardian 23 December 2002).

So New Labour has certainly worked hard to be seen to be doing something about child nutrition. However, its many schemes appear to be 'about as joined up as a five year old's handwriting,' (Hilly Janes The Guardian 3 December 2002) and, as I shall demonstrate later, they have had little impact on children's eating habits. One of the reasons for this is that the government's efforts are being undermined by its own unwillingness to confront two problems posed by the vested interests of the food industry: the advertising of junk foods on television and promotional schemes in schools.

Advertising

A few facts and figures illustrate the scale of the problem. In 2001 food firms spent almost 200m advertising chocolate, confectionery, crisps and snacks but only 17m promoting fruit and vegetables (Jo Revill The Observer 17 November 2002). Of the top 20 British advertisers, five are food companies and McDonald's alone spent over 42m in 2002 - more than Nike or British Airways. The average British child watches ten food commercials every hour on television (nine of them for products high in fat, sugar, and/or salt) and swallows more than two hundred litres of sweet fizzy drinks a year (Jo Revill The Observer 3 November 2002; Sarah Boseley The Guardian 9 January 2003).

Advertisers use sports stars to associate junk food with health. So David Beckham is seen drinking Pepsi, Alan Shearer eats at McDonald's and sales of Walker's crisps have more than doubled since it began using Gary Lineker in 1995. The Food Commission's Research Officer Kath Dalmeny commented 'It's a really damaging message to be sending out to children. But when even the Football Association and the Premier League don't see anything wrong with taking sponsorship money from the chocolate manufacturers and the soft drinks companies, it is hard to see how that will change' (Claire Cozens The Guardian 10 May 2003).

Dalmeny also points to the use of other, more subtle images to create positive attitudes towards unhealthy foods. 'There's a campaign for Kentucky Fried Chicken that shows a family sitting eating a KFC meal while joking about the jumper granny has knitted for their father. That, I think, is a classic example. It's attributing emotions to the product that have nothing to do with Kentucky Fried Chicken. It's a highly insidious way of trying to persuade people to buy what is basically a very unhealthy product.'

Government ministers can't say they haven't been warned about the results of all this advertising. An International Obesity Task Force report presented to the European Union summit on obesity in Copenhagen argued that the food industry should be prevented from targeting children with adverts for junk food and sweets, and that vending machines for soft drinks should not be allowed in schools. 'Officials are pretty terrified around the whole of Europe about how to confront some of these huge vested interests,' said Task Force Chair Philip James. 'The fast food and soft drink industries have enormous vested interests which we need to confront' (Sarah Boseley The Guardian 13 September 2002).

And at first, it looked as though the government might be prepared to do just that. The FSA announced it would commission research into the promotional activities of the food industry and how they influence children's eating habits (Jo Revill The Observer 3 November 2002).

But it quickly became clear that the government had no intention of restricting food industry advertising. A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said 'Nothing is being ruled in or out in future efforts to tackle obesity, but we are not currently considering restrictions on food advertising for children.' Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell (pictured) - whose department regulates television advertising - went further and privately assured food industry executives that there would be no ban on food commercials shown during children's TV time because such a ban might 'adversely affect the quality of children's programming' (Jo Revill The Observer 17 November 2002).

Her comments were greeted with dismay by the 130 Labour MPs who had signed an early day motion asking the government to bring in a ban on all advertising to pre-school children. Leading nutritionists were equally angry. Professor Philip James said 'I'm dismayed by this. We are condemning our children to be manipulated by industry, as part of public policy.' The government was seriously out of step with the public on the issue, too. A Guardian/ICM poll revealed that 82 per cent of Britons want food advertisements aimed at children to be banned or more tightly regulated (Felicity Lawrence The Guardian 10 May 2002).

Promotional schemes in schools

Schemes like those sponsored by Walker's crisps, Pringles and Cadbury's are supposed to conform to 'best practice' guidelines agreed in 2001 by the Consumers' Association, advertisers and the Education Department. A key principle is that 'materials should not encourage unhealthy activities'.

Walker's 'Free Books for Schools' scheme has been running for five years. In exchange for tokens printed in Rupert Murdoch's tabloids and on packets of Quavers, Monster Munch, French Fries, Squares, Footballs, 3Ds and Wotsits, schools can claim books published by HarperCollins. (Proprietor: R Murdoch). Walkers says it is aiming 'to make a real contribution to literacy' and claims that 'any impact on sales is secondary.' According to its 'Free Books for Schools' website, the scheme is supported by the government, the National Association of Head Teachers, the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations and the Literacy Trust.

Tim Minogue (The Guardian 6 January 2003) was horrified when his daughter was given a letter from her Head Teacher exhorting her to 'Be part of the six-month collecting frenzy!' Walkers' scheme clearly flouts the 'best practice' guidelines. 'I couldn't tell a Walkers Wotsit from any other extruded bundle of E numbers,' he wrote. 'But I know I don't want my daughter eating this stuff. What job is it of her school to encourage her in a "frenzy" of consumption of junk snacks?'

Cadbury's 'Get Active' scheme has caused even more anger. The scheme requires children to eat 160m bars of chocolate - containing almost 2m kg of fat - in order to swap the wrappers for 'free' sports equipment for their schools.

Incredibly, the scheme has the backing of the Youth Sport Trust and of sports stars Paula Radcliffe and Audley Harrison. It has even been endorsed by Sports Minister Richard Caborn (pictured). A Cadbury press release quoted him as saying that he is 'delighted that Cadbury is prepared to support a drive [which] could make a real difference to the quality of young people's lives.' The Department of Sport said it did not believe the campaign would encourage children to buy more chocolate. 'The campaign will encourage children to realise that when they eat chocolate they need to do it in the context of a balanced life and being active,' a spokesman said.

In a letter to The Guardian (5 May 2003) Chief Executive Officer of Cadbury Schweppes John Sunderland wrote 'All the informed authorities agree that the answer is a balanced lifestyle that combines sensible diet with sufficient physical exercise.' He admitted the scheme had 'commercial objectives' but insisted 'This is not designed to sell more chocolate.' (It would be interesting to know what commercial objectives Cadbury could possibly have other than selling more chocolate).

Consumer groups and health organisations are furious. Director of the Food Commission Tim Lobstein said 'The amounts of chocolate involved for these "gifts" is quite astounding. It is ridiculous to combine a fitness campaign with eating chocolate.' British Dietetic Association spokeswoman Catherine Collins said the promotion went against all public health messages. 'We are running an Eat to be Fit campaign at the moment warning children of obesity. Activity is a vital part of staying fit and linking it with eating chocolate is not on.'

In a letter to The Guardian (5 May 2003) the National Consumer Council's Frances Harrison wrote 'The new National Curriculum citizenship programme ... aims to raise awareness of persuasive marketing forces. How far such initiatives can go in counterbalancing well-resourced marketing campaigns is a moot point.'

So junk food advertising on television and in-school promotions by junk food companies are real problems for those seeking to encourage healthy eating. But there are also tuck shops and vending machines full of junk food and fizzy drinks, and the activities of firms like JazzyMedia, which has already given schools millions of exercise books bearing advertisements for sugary drinks and is now planning to promote samples of drinks and crisps in school dining halls at lunchtime (Hilly Janes The Guardian 15 April 2003).

Two years on: has anything changed?

Have the government's healthy eating schemes - and in particular, their nutritional standards for school meals - had any impact on children's diets?

In 1999, the most popular foods in school canteens were chips, pizza, sausages, hot dogs, spaghetti and burgers (Local Authority Caterers Association School Meals Survey quoted by Joanna Blythman The Guardian 23 July 1999).

Today, two years after the government introduced its nutritional guidelines, a survey for Which? magazine found that although school caterers are complying with the new rules, children are still choosing the least healthy options (Felicity Lawrence The Guardian 6 March 2003). The most popular foods in school canteens are pizza, chicken nuggets and fishcakes, chips, potato-based 'smiley faces' and baked beans. The report says children between the ages of ten and fifteen are surviving on crisps, chips and chocolate bars washed down with soft drinks - a diet high in fat, sugar and salt, and low in fibre, iron, folate, zinc and other nutrients essential to growth.

Children are not getting vital nutrients because they are eating, on average, only two portions of fruit or vegetables a day - older boys only one portion - with school meals contributing less than one portion a day. They are consuming thirty times more soft drinks and twenty-five times more confectionery than they did in 1950.

Which? researcher Rachel Clemons said 'Children's eating habits are a real cause for concern. For many children their main meal of the day is the school meal. If they are not eating the right food there, it has a real impact on their health.'

The survey makes clear that health education alone is not enough to change children's eating habits. Most of those who kept food diaries for the survey knew which foods were good for them and understood that poor diets could lead to weight problems and diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. But they still chose the fatty and sugary foods first.

Why worry?

Does any of this matter? Of course. Why? There are four fairly obvious reasons.

First, and most obviously, this is about the future health of the nation. Numerous studies show that food habits learned in early life persist for years. Children are learning at school eating habits which will predispose them to obesity and a range of serious diseases (Joanna Blythman The Guardian 23 July 1999).

Second, many children eat little but junk at home. As we have already seen, pressure of work, changes in lifestyle, food industry advertising and a lack of food education have led to a culture in which few families sit down together for traditional meals. Many parents therefore assume - or hope - that their children are getting a decent meal at school. Three fifths of parents say school meals play a vital role in their children's diet and more than a fifth admit to relying on the school canteen to provide a nutritious diet (Local Authority Caterers' Association survey quoted by Hilly Janes The Guardian 3 December 2002).

Third, a healthy diet actually makes a difference to children's ability to learn. Many schools have reported improvements in achievement following healthy eating schemes. Wolsey Junior School and Whitehorse Manor School in south London, for example, noted significant improvements in academic results following bans on junk food (Joanna Blythman The Guardian 23 July 1999).

Fourth, a healthy diet improves children's behaviour. There is a wealth of international research into the effects of vitamins, minerals and other compounds such as amino acids on brain chemistry. Among the nutrients known to affect mood and behaviour are zinc, essential fatty acids, vitamins B5 and B6, and calcium and magnesium.

A study undertaken at the Young Offenders' Institution in Aylesbury demonstrated significant improvements in behaviour when inmates were given supplementary vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids (British Journal of Psychiatry 2002, quoted by Jean West The Observer 23 February 2003). Further work on the diets of juvenile delinquents is being done at the Cactus Clinic at Middlesbrough's Teesside University. And Janice Hill, an expert in behavioural disorders, insists that many of the restless, agitated symptoms displayed by children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) are linked to the foods they have eaten (Jean West The Observer 23 February 2003).

So where do we go from here?

Responsibility for children's eating habits is shared between parents, schools and the government.

Of course it is primarily the duty of parents to see that their offspring are well fed. Right-wing politicians regard it as entirely a matter for parents and not something the state should get involved in. This will not do. As we have seen, many parents, through ignorance or through pressures of work and time, are not ensuring that their children get a decent diet. No responsible government can ignore the widespread development of unhealthy eating habits whose long-term effects on the National Health Service will be incalculable.

In our schools, education in nutrition and food preparation is sadly lacking. This is not the schools' fault. The government-imposed regime of National Curriculum, tests, targets and league tables, has all but killed it off through pressure to 'raise standards' in basic subjects. In twenty years' time we'll have a nation of obese diabetics - but at least they'll be able to read and write.

So, whether the Tories - or Blair's New Labour Party - like it or not, the government must legislate. The following areas need urgent attention:

  • The nutritional standards for school meals must be made more rigorous.
  • Competitive tendering and the use of privatised catering companies should be reviewed.
  • There must be an increase in the cost of ingredients. Even a small increase from the present 40-50p per meal to, say, 60-70p would make a significant difference to the quality and quantity of food offered.
  • The reintroduction of subsidies should be considered.
  • Eligibility for free meals should be widened and take-up encouraged.
  • Nutrition and food preparation must be made important elements of the National Curriculum.
  • The promotion of junk food in schools through voucher schemes, vending machines and exercise books carrying advertisements must be banned.
  • Television advertising of junk food to children must be banned.
If the government is serious about the diet of our children and the future health of the nation, it must do something about all the above. If it fails to do so, the long-term consequence will be a nation of obese people suffering serious diseases and imposing an ever-increasing burden on the National Health Service.

Postscript

In the month after this article was written, US food giant Kraft, faced with the threat of obesity lawsuits, announced that it would reduce its portion sizes, cut the sugar, fat and calorie content of many of its foods, improve nutritional labelling, set guidelines for advertising to children and offer healthier snacks in school vending machines (David Teather The Guardian 2 July 2003). A report by JP Morgan identified Cadbury Schweppes as the European food manufacturer most at risk of obesity lawsuits (Michael Harrison The Independent 3 July 2003) and New York announced it would ban junk foods and fizzy drinks from its school vending machines.

References

Webster C (1985) 'Health, welfare and unemployment during the depression' Oxford: Past and Present 109 November 204-230

Webster C (1997) 'Government policy on school meals and welfare foods 1939-1970' in DF Smith (1997) Nutrition in Britain: science, scientists and politics in the twentieth century London: Routledge 190-213

  • This article was published in Forum 45(3) Autumn 2003 111-118.