The availability of junk food in schools has become an emotive subject over the last couple of years, and not just in the UK. A debate on the abolition of junk food in schools has been raging in New Zealand for several years and has led to an increasing number of schools initiating their own bans in the absence of government legislation. France has banned vending machines from primary and secondary schools, fizzy drinks are banned from schools in California, and other US states are considering a ban on vending machines.
The recent publication of the School Meals Review Panel report, Turning the Tables: Transforming School Food, which lists a range of radical measures to improve the quality of school meals, has prompted education secretary Ruth Kelly to declare a ban on junk food at schools in England and Wales.
Contract caterers and in-house operators will have at least three years to comply with the Government's proposals for school meals, but the vending industry doesn't have this luxury. A ban on vending machines selling chocolate, crisps, and sugary fizzy drinks will take effect from next September.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has carried out trials on the impact of juice and milk drinks on vending income and the results were a mixed bag, though mostly positive. Twelve schools across the country participated in the trial, in which pure juices, flavoured milks or milk shakes, semiskimmed milk, and mineral water replaced fizzy drinks.
Nine schools completed the project. Of these, two made a loss, two made a small profit, three made good profits, ranging from 300 to 520 (over 10 and 15 weeks respectively), and the two achieved profits of 863 and 1,283 (over 18 and 24 weeks respectively). The FSA concluded that, as far as vending machines are concerned, if children are given a choice, they frequently opt for healthier drinks.
However, the effects on snack vending have not been gauged, even though most major manufacturers have already implemented some changes to school vending policies. Nestl, for example, has launched a range of vending machines that provide healthier products, including yogurt drinks and fruit pots, and Masterfoods has broadened its product choice in line with the new standards.
Martin Paterson, deputy director general of the Food and Drink Federation, which represents manufacturers, comments: "The vending industry is ahead of the game. Schools do have standards and the reason they haven't banned these products before is because they're already working with manufacturers on healthy ranges. So far neither schools nor manufacturers have lost out financially."
The average medium-sized secondary school makes between 10,000 and 15,000 a year from vending. It's a significant proportion of their income and one that they can ill afford to lose. Jan Podsiadly, communications manager at the Automated Vending Association, is seriously concerned that the September 2006 deadline is too soon and that schools could lose out as a consequence.
He says: "Pupils will need time to adjust to the changes, and if healthy ranges are introduced too quickly, schools risk alienating pupils, who will then go outside school grounds to buy their snacks elsewhere. The trick is to have as many products as possible to avoid driving pupils away. Vending is a very valuable part of the catering delivery in schools. The fact is some catering services need additional help from vending to fill the gaps in their services. It's important to maintain this balance."
Tony Sanders is managing director of catering supplier Scolarest Primary. The company has started to improve its vending range, with milk-based drinks and less confectionery, but he emphasises that changes cannot be expected overnight. "It's going to be tricky to change children's' attitudes. The proposed ban is achievable but it needs to be phased and not rushed," he says.
Podsiadly is convinced the Government is using vending as a scapegoat and a "quick win". "The recommendations for vending won't solve child obesity. Vending has been flagged up with an early implementation date because the Government wants to be seen to make changes quickly, and vending seems to be the easiest option," he says.
A 12-week consultation period will hopefully shed more light on the finer details as well as allay fears regarding contradictions in what is and what isn't acceptable in vending machines. For example, the report condemns all chocolate products and processed fruit bars, while allowing choc ices, and biscuits, cookies and cakes that are baked on site.
Podsiadly explains: "The snacks standards need a lot more thought to make them viable. The proposals have pretty much decimated this area of vending and there are perhaps serious financial implications if the transition isn't handled correctly. It's equally important that pupils are taught the value of good diet, exercise and lifestyle in order to make the right choices for themselves."
Paterson hopes the Government will change its approach from an outright ban to one that's more pragmatic, like adding low-calorie and snack-size chocolate bars to the standards list. He adds: "It's a slightly more sophisticated approach that we hope the Government will approve during the consultation."
At the end of the day the decision rests with schools themselves. It's up to them to choose which products go into vending machines and ensure guidelines are adhered to. Says Paterson: "It isn't entirely clear how the proposals will be enforced. It's been suggested that schools will be visited by inspectors and nutritionists intermittently to make sure they've taken the changes on board, but it's really going to be down to the schools to self-report on progress."
Key findings of the School Meals Review Panel report
- Minimum food-based standards implemented for school lunches by September 2006, eg, no less than two portions of fruit and veg per child per day, and regular oily fish.
- Nutrient-based standards to ensure school meals contain all the essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals, with a September 2008 deadline for primary schools and 2009 for secondary schools.
- A ban on vending machines selling chocolate, crisps and sugary fizzy drinks from September 2006.
- All schools should work towards serving hot meals, cooked on site, from fresh and seasonal ingredients, with produce supplied by local farmers and suppliers.
- Schools and caterers should train all catering staff and supervisors to ensure they're able to support pupils in making healthy choices.
- Schools should have whole-school policies that account for the impact of packed lunches and other food brought into the school.
- Prioritisation of refurbishment or rebuilding of school kitchens under schools capital programmes, and ensuring that current Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contracts don't impose barriers to the improvement of school food.
- Schools should audit their food service and curriculum and develop a whole-school food and nutrition policy to be made available to parents and carers.
- Schools should aim for complete take-up of free school meal entitlement, and aim for a 10% increase in overall take-up within the three-year transition period.
Do's and don'ts in vending
Machines can stock
- Ice-cream and frozen dairy products (eg, choc ices)
- Bread (eg, bagels, croissants, English muffins)
- Biscuits and cakes made by school caterers (eg, American muffins, iced buns, doughnuts)
- Yogurt and fromage frais
- Snacks (eg, unsalted nuts, dried fruit, peanut and raisin mixes)
Machines can't stock
- Non-chocolate confectionery (eg, chewing gum, liquorice sweets, cereal bars, compressed fruit bars)
- Chocolate or chocolate products (eg, milk, plain and white chocolate, filled chocolate, chocolate eggs, chocolate-coated confectionery, bars and biscuits)
- Pre-packaged savoury snacks (eg, crisps, onion rings, tortilla chips, salted nuts)
Source: School Meals Review Panel report, Turning the Tables: Transforming School Food