It doesn't matter how well school canteens adhere to the new nutritional guidelines if children head to the nearest chicken take-away. The practice of "fringe feeding" has long been a problem for caterers looking to increase uptake at secondary level, but a
new report from the Nutrition Policy Unit at London Metropolitan University suggests there could be a few solutions, as Tom Vaughan reports
"As long as we have the packed lunches and parents are going to be irresponsible enough to want to put all the crisps and the junk in the packed lunch, there is no way the schools can win," said Boris Johnson, now London mayor, back in 2006. "Are we going to ban packed lunches?"
Three years on and the schools are no nearer a victory. In fact, reports from some caterers suggest the new nutrient-based standards that will come into force in secondary schools this summer - being already in operation at primaries - will make success in the school food battleground a distant prospect. "Is there any benefit in feeding fewer students an ideal meal?" says Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA) chairman Neil Porter.
However, it's not just the junk-filled pack lunch that is the enemy; rather it's a whole host of fringe-feeding venues. A study released by the Nutrition Policy Unit at London Metropolitan University showed the extent to which children were eating produce bought outside the canteen during school hours.
In the two schools surveyed, on-site pupil canteens were the least used of all the eating venues; supermarkets, take-aways and shops all saw more custom from the hungry student. In fact, two-fifths of pupils didn't buy food from the school at all: not from canteens, tuck shops nor vending machines.
But is it possible to fight these fringe-feeding venues? And if new nutritional standards make school food even less appealing, will it push more of them into the arms of take-aways and fast-food shops? Below, we discuss the four major factors determining the future of fringe feeding at school.
1. LOCKED GATE/STAY-ON-STIE POLICY
This is one of the most obvious ways of keeping kids on site. The London Metropolitan University report suggests that a locked-gate policy would never be a complete solution. "Pupils could bring in food from fringe shops The restrictions may even provoke pupil pedlars. Hence, keeping schoolchildren in school does not mean they will eat school meals."
Food service consultant and director of GY5 Julian Edwards says that a locked-gate policy is, in fact, exactly what caterers should ask for. "It is certainly viable," he says. "A lot of schools do it just based on a security rationale, but the average caterer should talk to the head teacher twice a year and discuss the option of a locked-gate policy."
However, while this may potentially help increase the numbers in a school canteen, it is far from a panacea. As Vic Laws, food service consultant and director of AVL Consultancy, points out, sixth-formers cannot legally be kept on site. "You can't prevent kids in the sixth form from leaving," he says. "Many schools also can't keep all the kids on site because, quite simply, the canteens aren't big enough."
From August, eight schools in Glasgow are piloting a scheme that will keep first-year secondary school pupils in during lunch breaks. "I think it's a good concept," says Fergus Chambers, managing director of Glasgow contract caterer Cordia. "We'll find out through trial and error if it works."
So, although not a complete answer, as the report says, Edwards and Chambers both agree that it is worth experimenting with. The bottom line, says Laws, is that caterers need whatever help they can get.
"If the Government is going to put in school food policies and nutritional standards, they have to be enforced. Otherwise you get the scenario where school kids don't want to eat the food and they go out or bring in packed lunches."
2. REVAMP THE DINING ROOM
The image and accessibility of the dining room has a major part to play. "Eating at school involved long queues, in sometimes raucous disorder," says the report. "For older students, leaving school at lunchtime is a sign of maturity. School dinners and pack lunches are uncool. In sum, there are pull factors that draw pupils to fringe shops, but also push factors within schools that drive them out."
It's not impossible, says Edwards, to imagine a school canteen that actually pulls in pupils. "I've seen excellent examples of schools that have turned canteens into restaurants. Changing institutional tables for bistro tables and restaurant-style chairs, breaking up the floor space with plants and dividers, plasma TV screens on the wall piping in MTV or Sky Sports News all make a comfortable environment."
Another important factor, says Laws, is to treat pupils more like adults. "It's about improving the environment of canteens and making them more like the outside," he says. "As for the queues, there is much to be said for the adoption of cashless systems.
"Queuing is a bone of contention with students, and caterers have to think about how much investment they are willing to make in serving counters," says Edwards.
Systems like Parentpay.com and Paypal.com allow parents to pay the school in advance for their children's meals, meaning that cash doesn't need to change hands and the paying process is quicker.
At their most advanced, says Edwards, these systems can recognise pupils via fingerprints and debit their account. Cashless systems also mean that money from parents for school lunches will go directly to the school, not to fringe-feeding venues.
Getting a dining room up to spec could prove vital in keeping kids on site. This all depends on the amount of money available, though.
3. VALUE FOR MONEY AND NUTRITIONAL STANDARDS
"In discussions, pupils said school canteens were expensive compared to fringe shops; pizza particularly - £1.30 a slice inside, £1 for a whole pie outside," says the report.
It is, of course, hard for the school caterer to pitch itself against the might of large supermarket chains when it comes to offering great deals, but reports from many schools show that kids buy what they want to eat, rather than what is the cheapest option, says Laws.
It is here that the new nutrient-based standards will ostensibly affect caterers and could even push pupils into the arms of fringe venues. "In Glasgow there are fish-and-chip shops outside school gates that put on offers selling deep-fried pizza aimed at children," says Chambers. "It's incredibly unfair that schools are expected to compete with that inside of draconian guidelines."
Speaking at the LACA Nutrient Summit, held in March, MP David Laws, Liberal Democrat spokesman for children, schools and families, also voiced concerns. "There's now a real risk that the nutrient-based standards will further drive youngsters away from school food. It's pointless if we have wonderful school meals that nobody is eating."
Even if caterers can get their pricing right, they are still going to be encumbered by nutritional guidelines which can be difficult to stick to and still pull in kids. At the Nutrient Summit, independent consultant and former LACA chairman Pat Fellows voiced her doubts about the practicality of the new nutrient-based standards. "The nutrient standards are so complicated, it takes sophisticated computer software to be able to check on the nutrient analysis of any meal you draw up," she said.
"And then you find that any small change you make to comply in one regard has an impact elsewhere. For example, I devised a menu of lasagne, garlic bread and salad - very tasty and nutritious, you might think, but when it was analysed, it was found to contain too much fat, so the cheese came out. Now the problem was that it didn't have enough protein, and so the problem continues."
However, the extent of the problems depends on the particular caterer, says Edwards. "There are definitely two camps here. Yes, some caterers have proved that they have lost income hand over fist over the imposition of nutritional standards. Then there is the camp that already have a handle on this, and the Government has just endorsed the way they work. So the proof is in the pudding that healthy food can be profitable."
4. RESTRICT FAST-FOOD SHOPS
In January 2008 the secretary of state for health proposed using planning controls to limit new fast-food shops near schools. "The value of the initiative substantially depends on the existing mix of fringe shops," says the report. "The real significance of the proposal is that, for the first time, the fringe attained a place on the policy agenda."
Vic Laws, for one, is in favour of the idea of restricting fast-food shops near schools. "If you take the temptation out of it, then kids aren't tempted. There is certainly an argument for it. We used to have burger vans and ice-cream vans outside schools, and they aren't much different from take-aways. You need to work against temptation; you don't house paedophiles next to schools."
Earlier this year Waltham Forest Council decided to restrict the opening of new take-aways and fast-food shops within 400m of schools, parks or leisure centres, with a statement saying, "It is hoped the new proposals will help to reduce litter, antisocial behaviour and noise, and contribute towards tackling childhood obesity and promote healthy eating."
Of course, the report is spot-on here, stating that, if implemented nationally, the effectiveness would depend on how many fringe shops already exist. Near the suburban school it studied there was just one take-away. But near the urban school there were six. While it might help in some cases, it is far from a cure-all.
The factors controlling whether a school can convince children to stay on site range from the simple (locked gates), to the expensive (stylish restaurants and cashless systems), to the long-term (restricting fast-food shops). All are viable options for the school to pursue, but none will solve the problem alone.
It comes down to the fact that kids will eat what they like, and whether or not this can be done inside nutritional standards will be seen in the long term. The only real answer, as Vic Laws says, is to throw time and money at the problem, and hope that in five years' time the children who have been under nutritional standards since primary school will prove to be better educated.
A report on school meals says its not packed lunches, but nearby take-aways that are the enemy of good eating
One of the suggestions to reverse declining attendance at school canteens is to revamp their image altogether, turning them into cashless restaurants with no queuing
Haybridge High School in Hagley, Worcestershire, has addressed the problem of children leaving the premises at lunchtime with a three-pronged attack.
First, children up to sixth-form level must stay on site; a bold move that is much debated, but which few parents would agree to at other schools in the UK.
Second, to keep the large numbers of sixth-form students on the premises, a separate café-bar has been installed in its dining hall. Run by Andy Minchin of Bromsgrove-based Class Catering Services, it is modelled on a high-street sandwich bar, with hot snacks, salads, coffee and other drinks.
Called Vision, it is sited next to Vision Restaurant, where Minchin serves Quorn products in a range of menu options.
And third, students have been offered the chance to take part in five-week cookery courses. In a final, testing Masterchef-style scenario, children have to cook for parents and staff, demonstrating what they've learnt.
When improving the environment of canteens, schools should aim to eliminate queuing and treat pupils more like adults
KEY FINDINGS FROM LONDON METROPOLITAN UNIVERSITY'S REPORT ON FRINGE FEEDING
The report selected two large mixed comprehensive schools, one in leafy, affluent suburbia, the other in a poor, gritty inner-city area.
Three hundred and thirty-two pupils completed a five-day "food frequency questionnaire" (FFQ), covering especially the sources of food eaten during the school day time frame - home, school or fringe. Most were in years nine and 10, aged 13-15, but at the suburban school the report included year 12, aged 16-17 - the ones allowed out at lunchtime.
To measure fringe feeding independent of pupils' own reports, the heart of the research involved observation in 16 shops during three time periods: before, during and after school hours.
Of the three sources of food available during the school day (home, school, fringe), shops on the fringe were the most widely used: 80% of pupils bought something from them at least once a week, according to the FFQs.
Among those allowed out at lunch, usage rose to 97% at the urban school and included everyone at the suburban one.
Food was brought from home by 68% of pupils. Schools were the least common source of food, used by only 59%.
The percentages above total more than 200% because most pupils obtained food from more than one of the three sources available. Only 18% of pupils used just one.
Fringe purchases contained on average 38% of calories from fat, compared with the Dietary Reference Value of 35%. Total carbohydrate intake was roughly on target, at 52%. Much of that, however, was sugar.