Letter to The Sunday Times 27 September 2015

Top marks for free school meals in fight against obesity

This is a letter to the times suggesting “experts” support universal infant free school meals. It wasn’t written by any of the signatories, but by a PR agency paid for by people with a vested interest in the continuation of the UIFSM policy. There are a number of errors, as highlighted and corrected in the numbered notes at the bottom.

SINCE last September every child in the first three years of school has enjoyed a free school lunch and we applaud the government for its continued support. With one in three children leaving primary school overweight or obese, ensuring a nutritionally balanced school lunch has never been so important (1).

Childhood obesity is one of our greatest public health challenges. Overweight and obese children face numerous health risks, including insulin resistance, hypertension, early signs of heart disease, asthma and poor mental health. And these risks increase as they enter adulthood. Only 1% of packed lunches meet nutritional standards for school food (2), whereas children who eat a healthy school lunch consume more vegetables and fewer sugary drinks and crisps (3). A free school meals policy could end up paying for itself many times over (4) and reduce the spiralling costs to the NHS of treating obesity an vd other diet-related illnesses.  It would surely be short-sighted to cut the funding in November’s spending review.

We see the provision of a free healthy school lunch for infants as the bed ww  rock of a transformative childhood obesity strategy — a strategy that also tackles the marketing and pricing of less healthy food and drink and boosts schools’ teaching of food education.

Professor the Lord Darzi of Denham, Director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation, Imperial College London
Professor Sheila the Baroness Hollins, board of science chair, British Medical Association
Ashley Adamson, Professor of Public Health Nutrition and Director, Fuse – UKCRC Centre for Translational Research in Public Health
Louise Ansari, Director of Prevention of Type 2 Diabetes, Diabetes UK
Professor John R Ashton CBE, President of the UK Faculty of Public Health
Clare Bambra, Professor of Public Health Geography Director, Durham University
Dr Emma Boyland, Lecturer in Appetite and Obesity, University of Liverpool
Sally Bunday MBE, Director of the Hyperactive Children’s Support Group
Professor Christine Bundy, President UK Society for Behavioural Medicine
Dr James Bunn, Consultant Paediatrician, Alder Hey Children’s NHS Foundation Trust
Andy Burman, Chief Executive, British Dietetic Association
Professor Simon Capewell, Professor of Clinical Epidemiology, University of Liverpool
Dr Nigel Carter OBE, Chief Executive, British Dental Health Foundation
Dr Samantha Caton, Lecturer in Public Health, University of Sheffield
Malcolm Clark, Co-ordinator, Children’s Food Campaign
Dr Helen Crawley, Director First Steps Nutrition Trust
Professor Steven Cummins, Professor of Population Health and NIHR
Senior Fellow, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Professor Jane Dacre, President, Royal College of Physicians of London
Professor David Haslam, GP, Bariatric Physician, Chair, National Obesity Forum
Rosalind Godson, Professional Officer, Health Sector, Unite/Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association
Kawther Hashem, Nutritionist and Researcher, Action on Sugar
Robin Ireland, Chief Executive, Health Equalities Group
Dr Clare Llewellyn, Lecturer in Behavioural Obesity Research, University College London
Barrie Margetts, Emeritus Professor, Faculty of Medicine, University of Southampton
Dr Richard Marsh, Chief Executive, Institute for Food Brain and Behaviour
Professor John C. Mathers, Director, Human Nutrition Research Centre, Newcastle University
Dr Fiona McCullough, Chairman, British Dietetic Association
Dr Colin Michie, Chair of the Nutrition Committee, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health
Professor Susan Michie, Director, UCL Centre for Behaviour Change
Dr Michael Nelson PhD RNutr, Director, Public Health Nutrition Research Ltd
Sonia Pombo, Campaign Manager, Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH)
Professor Mike Rayner, Chair, Sustain
Neville Rigby, convener, International Obesity Forum
Professor Sian Robinson, Professor of Nutritional Epidemiology, University of Southampton
Professor Roy Taylor, Professor of Medicine and Metabolism, Newcastle University
Professor Russell Viner, Officer for Health Promotion, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health
Peter Ward, Chief Executive, British Dental Association
Professor Richard G Watt, Professor of Dental Public Health & Head of Department of Epidemiology and Public Health. UCL
Professor Martin White, President-elect, UK Society for Behavioural Medicine
Marjon Willers, Director, Health Education Trust

(1) the school food standards do not apply to many schools, no one checks compliance and many schools simply ignore them through ignorance or because of costs, (a vending machines bring in £15-£20,000 a year). perhaps most importantly in this instance is the fact, even where applied, the food based standards do NOT ensure “a nutritionally balanced school lunch”. there are no limits on fat, salt or sugar, nothing to stop a school doling out turkey twizzlers and chips. Some school meals are fantastic, but let’s not pretend they are nutritionally balanced and all healthy.

(2) Only 1% of packed lunches met nutritional standards for school food in 2009, under the old stricter nutritional standards. But it is worth remembering that these standards were never intended to be applied to packed lunches, they were never sent to parents and do not necessarily mean that a child isn’t having a healthy balanced diet.  It is worth noting that a significant number of the meals served under the new standards would not meet the old more stringent nutritional standards. Just because a packed lunch didn’t meet standards, doesn’t mean they are unhealthy.

(3) Whilst the UFSM Pilot did find children who eat a school lunch consumed more vegetables and fewer sugary drinks and crisps, they also found the children were more likely to eat chips or roasted or fried potatoes and other starchy food. The children were also less likely to eat whole pieces of fruit. but publicising that doesnt suite the cause, so the letter  ignores the facts.

(4)It seems extremely unlikly that any accrued health benefits will save £800m a year. Saying “A free school meals policy could end up paying for itself many times over” is little more than wishful thinking and wild speculation. There is no evidence to back up these claims, not one iota to show uifsm reduces obesity rates. I have real concerns that some of these signatories have put their name to a campaign they actually know little about.