Lockdown lunches

Written by Dr Laura Johnson and Dr Zoi Toumpakari

Family life has been transformed by lockdown. Since schools closed on 23rd March many families have had to create classrooms at home and juggle home-schooling with home working. But what has happened to school food at home? Are packed lunches still the norm or are family meals now the dish of the day?

Campaigners like the Food Foundation (@Food_Foundation) have already identified the most vulnerable children and are working hard to ensure that free-school meals are maintained for 18% of families with children eligible. Under half of these families have been given vouchers to buy food, another third has had food prepared for collection or delivery by schools, so provision, to some extent, has continued. But worryingly a third have not had anything. Furthermore, out of necessity food provided is often highly processed to ensure it lasts for a week or more at a time, suggesting that compared with food served in canteens, where school food standards apply, food quality may have dropped. But what about the other 82% families? Are meals worse across the board? Or is it possible that for many children lockdown lunches are a healthier option than the norm?

According to a YouGov poll in April, over half of households haven’t noticed a change in what they eat, but 1 in 3 have reported cooking from scratch more often; 1 in 5 think their diets are healthier since lockdown but 2 in 5 think they are eating more. Straw polls of families we know have reported diverse reactions. Some are more aware of what their children eat, have more control, are providing more fruit or eating meals as a family. Others have been fending off relentless biscuit requests (not always successfully). For some kids it’s meant a switch from cooked school dinners to more packed lunch type fare at home. But is that a problem? What do we know about school food pre-COVID19?

A review of studies up to 2007 comparing the nutritional quality of packed lunches to school dinners found that more energy, sugar, saturated fat and salt was in packed lunches. Back then both school dinners and packed lunches were pretty poor. However, school food standards have been in place in England since 2006 to raise the nutritional quality of food provided by schools. Around the world, as in England, the introduction of school food standards have generally improved the quality of meals provided in schools. Although intakes of vegetables and nutrients like fibre and iron still need attention, fruit intake is up, fat intakes are lower (especially saturated fat) and less salt is being consumed from school canteens.

Improvements in school-meals is great news, a real win for public health, but now the gap in the quality between school dinners and food brought from home has widened and the spotlight is firmly on packed lunches as a key area for action. Food from home still makes up 40% of meals eaten in UK schools. Recent times have seen small changes in how often sweets and how much sugary drinks are packed in lunches, but protein is lower and vegetables remain sparse, at just half a portion a day. Multiple interventions aiming to change packed lunch quality have been tested but with little success to date.

Our work on the National Diet and Nutrition Survey has used the detailed reports of what teenagers ate over 4 days to identify the key differences between meals at home vs. school. We found that most eating (two thirds) happens at home, and only 1 in 8 meals are consumed at school. Nearly 3 out of 4 school eating occasions included foods high in fat and sugar, compared with 2 out of 3 meals at home. We found that when eating at school, foods high in fat and sugar were not only eaten more often but also in larger amounts. We estimated that teenagers ate an extra 59 calories of foods high in fat and sugar in school-based meals compared with a similar meal at home, the equivalent of half a bag of Wotsits.

The kinds of foods high in fat and sugar eaten at school are similar to those eaten at home, including crisps and savoury snacks, biscuits, sugary drinks, cakes and chocolate. But there were some key differences between eating at home and school. Predictably, eating at school occurred primarily at lunchtime (about 50% of all eating) but it was also common in the morning too (40% of eating). In contrast, meals at home happen throughout the day, with around 50% occurring after 5pm (i.e. dinner time). Eating at school is more often with friends whereas at home eating is as likely to be alone (33%) as it is with family (39%).

We also went to talk with teenagers directly about what they thought influences their eating. For most teens, food choices when away from home are a result of many different factors working together. But they told us that they enjoyed eating most when they were with their friends, one said “I tend to prefer to eat at school because I’m with my friends and it’s more sociable really than with my family.”. Social drivers are clearly important. Therefore, creating social school environments that enable and actively promote healthy choices could be an element of achieving positive change in school food future. An interesting challenge in our new socially-distant world.

Many schools are opening up more widely today, what might the lifting of lockdown mean for children’s diets? Some schools, to prevent spreading the coronavirus, have banned packed lunches. In other schools, ensuring a safe school food service is a concern so packed lunches are mandated. Social distancing may limit the kind of interactions kids used to enjoy about lunch times at school, will that affect what they eat now? Times are changing fast, new normals are being created and this may be an opportunity, in the longer-term, to reset the system for the better.

About the authors

Written by Dr Laura Johnson and Dr Zoi Toumpakari, Centre for Exercise, Nutrition and Health Sciences in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. Dr Johnson is a member of the GENIUS network, funded by the UK prevention research partnership, which aims to build a community of school staff, policymakers, food providers and researchers to generate fresh insights into the challenge of ensuring healthy food in schools and reducing inequalities. Follow us in twitter @GeniusSFN

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