We all remember our school lunches, and recall the childish glee at finding out they had your favourite meal on the menu that day. However, one thing we couldn't appreciate clearly was that not all school lunches were created equal. It is an imbalance that continues to exist, revealed in the news that more than a million children are still receiving lunches with poor nutritional content, or fatty foods that contribute to a national obesity epidemic that threatens to overwhelm our National Health Service.
There are standards in place to prevent children from eating too many high sugar/high fat foods at school, but these standards are only mandatory for council schools that became academies between 2008 and 2010—for schools founded after those dates it is only optional. That means almost 4000 schools do not have to follow food standards, or at least can follow them at their own discretion. With obesity amongst adults already at a record-breaking high, these children who are not eating healthy school lunches will lead to that figure ballooning even further over the next two decades. Weight gain isn't the only problem. According to official figures, 3.5 million children are so overweight they are in danger of developing diabetes.
The government claims that the number of schools not complying to the national standards is falling—schools are signing up to the rules voluntarily. But more must be done, both inside and outside schools to ensure that the good work done in reducing the fat and sugar content of school lunches isn't a wasted effort. There are several myths surrounding childhood obesity that make it difficult to educate parents. One of these is that overweight parents produce overweight children—that there's nothing they can do. This is patently false. Studies have shown that overweight parents are simply passing on their poor eating habits to their children and then being surprised that the children gain so much weight.
Children are also highly susceptible to changes in their home lives, particularly during divorce or deaths in the family. They are more likely to react by comfort eating or exercising less, and with divorce rates in the UK hovering between 60-70% this isn't a problem that's going away. This is where school lunches can fill the gaps—if schools all follow the national standard, it means that children are getting at least one meal per day that isn't laden with sugar and fat.
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