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Latest from Children’s Food Trust Conference

Information for Schools from Children’s Food Conference, March 7th 2012

Physical, cognitive, social and emotional development are all key, and interdependent, to children becoming adults

Health inequalities are not inevitable or immutable. There is an unfair distribution of health, and any programmes which retard progress towards equality are unfair. There is a need to take action to avoid food inequalities, since all children can benefit from better nutrition, not just for economic reasons, but because it is the RIGHT thing to do. It is reasonable to assume that good nutrition in the early years should have better impact on cognitive behaviour and development. More research is required to determine precisely how much ,however. Better nutrition in the early years would enhance both aspiration and ability to do well in school. While more research is required to determine how much better a child might do , there is evidence that those at Key Stage 2 who had had a diet of junk food achieve less. (Avon Longitudinal Study Of Children)

Poor eating habits in adolescence may continue into adulthood – cardio-vascular problems and diabetes.

Families on lower incomes report skipping meals, and choose between eating and heating. The UK has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Europe. Poor nutrition in pregnancy leads to low birth weight, and is associated with childhood diseases and is recognised to affect the development of the brain. Children born to mothers in lower social classes are disadvantaged from the start in nutritional terms- poorer nutrition “in utero” and lower instances of breastfeeding. It is easier to obtain fast food in socially deprived areas due to the density of outlets (MacDonald report 2008) Poverty is disempowering and disadvantage accumulates over time. We need to work harder in proportion to need to achieve “proportionate universalism”, and to improve the social gradient (Prof. Sir Michael Marmot).

In the context of School meals – practical improvements

Reducing choice is generally accepted by children as long as the choice is not too unfamiliar. They will make a choice from what is in front of them and we are able to manipulate choice in subtle ways.

How can we influence people to make changes?

  • do nothing and simply monitor?
  • inform people of benefits/ disadvantages
  • guide choice by making the healthy option the “default” choice
  • guide through incentives/ disincentives, such as tax
  • restrict choice through regulations
  • eliminate choice

We can actually intervene on all levels

In the school dining room

In recent regulation of school meals, through the School Food Trust, there has been a 60% increase in fruit and vegetables and a 30% reduction in salt.

Pupils have many needs to satisfy at lunchtime:

  • refuel
  • reward- play
  • re-energise
  • relax
  • re-connect- communicating
  • relationship building
  • release

Lunchtime is a very important time at school but mainly for relationship building: food is secondary, pupils do not care if the food is healthy, just not unfamiliar. Choices are made on very immediate cues. If choice is restricted ,people will choose what is there in front of them, there are no underlying stable beliefs or values. Trying to manipulate food choices can be difficult if previous experiences are not good. In terms of eating foods, we don’t really retain information, just memories, good and bad. In addition , if we eat something we like, the benefit to ourselves is immediate, ie the taste, while the benefit of not eating an item is longer term, relatively.

Does providing healthier food and improving the dining room experience affect post-lunch classroom behaviour?

Making the most of lunchtime

Over the last 20 years or so, schools have been under increasing pressure to reduce the time allowed for a lunch break.
That pressure has often come from the difficulties in finding time for the curriculum and from the lack of suitable space for pupils to eat and socialise. Yet, evidence shows that this trend goes against what children need to develop and to learn to their full potential.
Recent research for the School Food Trust shows that :

  1. The lunch break is seen, by most pupils, as the most important part of the day, as they crave time to refuel, relax, socialise and exercise. The better their experience, the more likely they are to choose and enjoy a healthy school meal.
  2. Having a nutritionally-balanced school meal in an attractive environment helps improve children’s behaviour and their ability to focus on learning, in the afternoons.

So, during that lunch break, children need to be able to eat nutritionally-balanced, appealing meals in a comfortable, enjoyable environment. They are then more likely to benefit from the break and return to the classroom refreshed and ready to learn.
It makes sense then that, rather than reducing the lunch break, pupils’ health, development, behaviour and performance is better served by enhancing or extending it.
In recent research undertaken by the School Food Trust children in primary and secondary education were in a higher state of alertness , because more of the lunchtime needs had been satisfied and were seen to be approx 14% more on task.

Similar research has shown how important breakfast is. In a study of 11-14 year olds it was seen that missing breakfast had a negative effect on their learning. Those who had had a good breakfast described themselves as feeling “more confident”. Those who had had a breakfast of foods such as porridge, energy being released slowly into the blood stream described themselves as “happy” and “alert”, and was seen as a good “tool” for day to day learning .

A healthy lunch served in a nice environment positively affects learning behaviour.
A healthy breakfast affects mood and cognitive function.

(Information taken from research conducted by Dr. M. Nelson, Dir of Research and Nutrition SFT, and Dr I Vlaev, Imperial College London)

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