An evidence-based approach? You’ve got it.

Jamie’s said it. MPs are saying it. Other children’s campaigners and researchers are saying it. Parents are saying it.

If you needed a groundswell of public opinion on why we need a regulatory framework for healthy food in all schools, I’d say you’ve got it.

But if you still need convincing, take a look at our new research on the early impact of nutritional standards for the food that teenagers eat at secondary school. It’s the first national study to measure the effectiveness of the legislation that was phased in from 2006, so it’s an important milestone.

The proportion of pupils on school meals who have chips for their lunch was down from 43% to 7%. The average meal’s now higher in essential nutrients and around one third lower in fat, sugar and salt. Almost three quarters of students on school meals are having at least some fruit or veg as part of their lunch. School meals are putting packed lunches to shame by almost completely eradicating chocolate, crisps and sugary drinks, unlike the lunchboxes. We haven’t yet completely cracked it, but the progress in 18 months (or less, for some of the schools in our sample) is remarkable. Show me another public health initiative which can show similar impact for diet in such a short time.

The key thing to remember here is that it wasn’t voluntary guidelines that got us this far. All those years ago, schools knew that food was deteriorating. Many weren’t at all happy, but schools are busy places with many plates to juggle, not just the ones in the dining room. Many cooks wanted to improve their food – indeed, many were already doing great things – but making big changes to menus is tough if you’re a lone voice.

To achieve the impact for all pupils, this regulation was what was needed. It created the level playing field for schools – making sure that every caterer, of any kind, was working with the same principles – principles that we know will give pupils a healthy menu to choose from.

The voluntary guidelines that were in place before the compulsory standards had made no difference to what children were eating; in fact, they saw things get worse. The legislation has made things better. It’s not rocket science. In fact, I think it’s what they call evidence-based change.

Judy Hargadon OBE’s our Chief Executive – email Judy.

Read our press release about the secondary school food study here.

Read what we found when we completed a similar study in primary schools here.

Find recipes to help you meet the standards here.

Find training to help you use the standards here.

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