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

Combatting loneliness in a climate of self-isolation for older housing residents

By Paul Willis, Ailsa Cameron and Brian Beach.

In the current climate of self-isolation, keeping social and staying in touch with others is vital to our health and wellbeing. This is even more important in later life when people’s social networks may start to shrink in size.

Older adults can experience feelings of loneliness due to the loss of intimate connections, such as the death of a spouse or relationship separation, and the transitions associated with later life, such as retirement, the onset of chronic illness, or changes in living environments. We also know that social isolation (being separated from the company of and contact with others who are important to us) over a protracted period of time can trigger feelings of loneliness and have an adverse impact on older adults’ emotional and mental wellbeing.

The current government policy response requiring older housing residents aged 70+ to self-isolate during the COVID-19 pandemic can potentially exacerbate feelings of loneliness. Below are some key messages for those providing support to older residents in housing with care schemes [1]. These messages have been distilled from research projects led at the University of Bristol over the last four years on extra-care housing, loneliness in later life, and social inclusion in housing schemes for older adults.

1) Supporting residents to maintain daily contact with significant others, such as through telephone calls or online messaging, is essential. Many older residents in housing schemes will live alone in their homes. While living alone does not mean every resident will experience loneliness, residents may be missing regular face-to-face contact with family (e.g. adult children and grandchildren) and good friends within the same scheme and the wider community.

Housing staff need a good understanding of each resident’s social networks – who is important to them and who do they call on for practical and emotional support when needed. For example, we know from previous research that older LGBT+ people may regard friends as close family members and hold close friends in equal esteem as biological kin. Supporting residents to maintain the connections that matter to them is really important during this time of self-isolation.

2) We know that some older adults may equate loneliness with thoughts of being socially discarded, not having a purpose, and being no longer valued by others. Now more than ever, residents may value having a clear role they can play to contribute to the lives of others and the scheme where they live. While volunteering outside the scheme is not a viable option, residents could be supported to help other residents, such as keeping in daily telephone contact with those who lack social contact or experience illness or poor health. Other ways of contributing could be through gardening or maintenance activities around the scheme where tasks can be completed solo.

3) While some older residents may already use social media on a regular basis and be confident to extend their use into new media such as community-based WhatsApp or Facebook groups, we should remember that many will have no access to the internet and as a result may become more isolated over the coming weeks and months. For example, preliminary findings from our DICE project suggest that around a third of housing with care residents never use the internet, in contrast to over half using the internet at least once a week.

Our recent research into older men’s experiences of loneliness with Age UK highlighted how much older men who were single or living alone valued social connections with other people through groups, whether that be through clubs, societies, sports groups, or learning with others. While some men were online, it was routine, face-to-face contact outside of the home that was valued and helped keep loneliness at bay. Where feasible within public health guidelines, staff may explore ways in which residents within schemes can meet together each day for a short period of time while maintaining social distancing, for example in open courtyard spaces or gardens.

4) Our previous work with older people living in housing with care settings illustrates how the impact of austerity had already exacerbated older people’s experiences of isolation and loneliness because of a lack of public funding to support social engagement. For these older people, calls to self-isolate may reinforce their sense of isolation and marginalisation from wider society; regular resident contact with housing and care staff is critical more than ever.

In addition, as a result of the new Coronavirus Bill 2020, many local authority obligations bestowed under the Care Act 2014 (for example, in relation to assessing an individual’s needs, determining an individual’s eligibility for services, and care planning duties) have been suspended. As a result, care and support staff will need to be attentive to the additional care and wellbeing needs that residents may have, and housing with care providers may have to provide additional care and support to those older people in need without local authority involvement.

Concluding messages: Other groups have recently commented on the many problems of adopting blanket policy approaches based on chronological age (e.g. see the British Society of Gerontology’s recent statement). We echo these concerns about the ageist assumptions within this policy approach, while recognising that the mortality risk from COVID-19 is associated with age. More than ever, older adults need support to keep in regular social contact with others. If that must be in their homes, they will need assistance to access online technology to facilitate this, and it should not be assumed that digital resources and broadband access are automatically available to them. At the same time, maintaining face-to-face contact, at the recommended physical distance, is equally important and should not be underestimated or forgotten.

[1] By ‘housing with care’ we mean housing schemes that support older adults with independent living while providing care and support if needed, for example extra-care housing, sheltered housing and supported living schemes.


About the authors:

Paul Willis and Ailsa Cameron are Senior Lecturers at the University of Bristol and Senior Research Fellows of the NIHR School for Social Care, England. Brian Beach is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Longevity Centre UK. For more information contact: paul.willis@bristol.ac.uk

Related research:

The Provision of Social Care in Extra Care Housing, 2015-17, University of Bristol, funded by NIHR School for Social Care Research. More information: https://www.housinglin.org.uk/_assets/Resources/Housing/OtherOrganisation/ECHO-summary.pdf

Older Men at the Margins: Addressing older men’s experiences of loneliness and social isolation in later life, 2016-2019, University of Bristol with Age UK, funded by NIHR School for Social Care Research. More information: https://www.ageuk.org.uk/our-impact/policy-research/older-men-at-the-margins-how-men-combat-loneliness-in-later-life/

Promoting social inclusion in housing with care and support for older people in England and Wales (the DICE study), 2019-2021, University of Bristol with ILC-UK and Housing LIN, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. More information: https://www.bristol.ac.uk/sps/research/projects/promoting-social-inclusion-in-housing-schemes/

Isolation: The emerging crisis for older men. A report published by the International Longevity Centre UK in 2014. https://ilcuk.org.uk/isolation-the-emerging-crisis-for-older-men/