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Martin Lawson

Childhood obesity: whose fault is it anyway?

Martin Lawson looks at what schools are doing to promote healthy eating and considers what it'll take to stop childhood obesity

Posted by Stephanie Broad | April 28, 2016 | Catering & hospitality

Childhood obesity is never far from the news headlines. Just recently, we’ve seen a levy on sugary drinks announced in the budget that will see drinks companies taxed if they don’t change their recipes or ingredients in their products. This move was widely welcomed by many healthy eating campaigners, but it’s safe to say that sugary drinks are just one small part of the problem; obesity is nothing new and remains an ongoing challenge for the government, schools and of course parents.

Late last year, the House of Commons Health Select Committee’s (HCHSC) report entitled: Childhood Obesity – brave and bold action added fuel to the debate by sharing some truly shocking statistics. It revealed that one fifth of school children are overweight or obese when they begin school and this rises to one third by the time they leave primary. It also claimed that the most deprived children are twice as likely to be obese than those who are less disadvantaged.

So with the obesity crisis currently costing the NHS £5.1billion a year and considered as a contributory factor to certain conditions such as Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease, what can be done to curb our children’s expanding waist lines?

In its report, in addition to its advocacy of a sugar tax, HCHSC’s recommendations included:

  • Strong controls on price promotions for unhealthy food and drink
  • Tougher controls on marketing and advertising of unhealthy food and drink
  • Labelling of single-portion products that contain added sugar in ‘teaspoons’ to better communicate sugar-loading by manufacturers
  • Improved education and information about diet
  • Universal school food standards
  • Greater powers for local authorities to tackle the environment leading to obesity
  • Early intervention to offer help to families of children affected by obesity and further research into the most effective interventions.

Clearly there is much to be done to encourage healthier eating habits among our young people, but what more can schools do to encourage more health-conscious meal choices among their pupils?

The vast majority of the schools we work with are keen to promote healthier eating and lower the availability of sugary products in schools. As a professional buying organisation for schools, ESPO ensures that as a minimum requirement its food suppliers adhere to the government’s school food standards and any subsequent amendments.

Although food standards are recommended to all schools, academies created between June 2010 and March 2014 (just less than 50% of English secondary schools) do not have to adhere to these standards and can make their own catering and tuck shop choices.

Help is at hand. The Soil Association’s Catering Mark is also helping schools and their suppliers ensure that only foods that adhere to certain healthier guidelines are served in schools.

The Food for Life Catering Mark is also an important step forward because it provides an endorsement that caterers are working towards food improvements serving meals that are made from more fresh, sustainable ingredients and free from harmful additives. We evaluate our suppliers as part of the tender process on how they will assist a school to work towards the Food for Life accreditation.

There is no one obvious solution to the childhood obesity problem but it is encouraging to see the Health Committee’s strategy make specific recommendations which encourage parents, food and drink manufacturers, schools and their catering suppliers to collectively pool efforts and work towards educating our children to make healthier nutritional choices. 

Martin Lawson is a food and catering category manager at ESPO

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