It’s a pretty basic question. How many children eat school meals?
But back in 2005, when Jamie’s School Dinners first aired and the nation woke up to what many had been saying for years, it was impossible to answer with any certainty. Embarrassing, right?
The original School Meals Review Panel noted (and their report’s worth a read if you’re interested in this stuff) that there were gaps in the data available on school meals, and that Government would need to make sure it had a solid plan to evaluate the progress of the changes to improve food in schools. Put simply, you can’t fix something if you don’t know how big the problem is when you start, or how well the things you’re doing to fix it are working (or not, as the case may be).
I was part of the team tasked with making sure we had that information. It was about bringing together a comprehensive national picture. Of course, local authorities collect information on school food, but often used different reporting methods (particularly about secondary schools), making it hard to make comparisons. All these years on, we’re all using the same method to report; we can, literally, compare apples with apples. It’s systematic, quality data that we can all be confident about, and that means we can see the trends: what’s working, what’s not.
Perhaps most importantly, together with data on child obesity levels around the country and the one-day free school meals snapshot offered by the annual school census, take up of school meals has been one of the very few robust proxy measures for children’s diet and health. As local authorities take on public health commissioning responsibilities, it should be an invaluable source of data.
So what happens if this data isn’t collected again? A return to telephone surveys of samples of schools or local authorities, which give us a guide to what’s happening, but nothing concrete? Very probably. Difficulty in seeing what actions to take, nationally, to make sure food for our kids in school continues to improve? Definitely.
Some will say that no one cares about this stuff, except research wonks like me. But if the meals our children are getting at school start to decline once again, that’s an issue for all of us: more children deciding to opt for packed lunches or buying food outside of school instead means more children relying on a bag of crisps and a can of something sugary to take them through the afternoon. Kids who are less focused in the classroom and not performing to their full potential. A whopping miss of an opportunity to help them learn what it means to eat well. If we don’t know where things are falling down, how will we pick up the pieces again?
How many children eat school meals? Let’s hope it doesn’t become an impossible question to answer.
Jo Nicholas is a nutritionist and heads up our research evaluation work. Email Jo.