Free school meals do help combat childhood obesity, says study

As reported by The Guardian, a new study, by Birgitta Rabe and Angus Holford at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, has found that the provision of free school meals is a useful weapon in the fight against childhood obesity

A quarter of UK children are overweight or obese when they start school aged four or five, and this rises to a third of children by the time they leave primary school at the age of 11. However, the study concluded that free school meals make a valuable contribution to tackling Britain’s childhood obesity crisis.

The researchers looked at body mass index (BMI) data for children in 16,000 primary schools to examine the impact of the nutritionally balanced, universally free meals, with their maximum 530 calories, that were introduced by the coalition government in 2014.

Rabe said: “This intervention has a significant impact by reducing reception children’s obesity rates by seven per cent. It’s a small impact but it’s fast and it’s more effective than other school-based initiatives on children of this age, like running the daily mile or healthy eating messaging.”

They found “a steady decline of average BMI over the school year, totalling approximately 12% of a standard deviation, which suggests that the school environment has a beneficial influence on the energy balance of children”.

Significantly, the children’s BMI reverted to higher levels after school holidays of just one or two weeks, which invites speculation that children consume more calories at home or expend less energy through play and exercise than when they are at school.

The new healthy school meals, which was prompted by campaigns from Jamie Oliver, cost £437 a year for each child and have hugely reduced the use of home-packed lunches for Britain’s youngest schoolchildren.

Research done in 2010 found that the average lunchbox contained at 624 calories, and two-thirds of lunchboxes had at least two items of high-calorie, nutritionally empty foods, such as sweetened drinks, crisps and chocolate bars.

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Holford added: “We found a beneficial effect of school meals nationally, but it is also apparent when we look only at schoolchildren in more affluent areas. This suggests that even for children of middle-class parents, the school meals were more nutritionally balanced than what they were bringing in their lunch boxes.”

The study is part of a larger Nuffield Foundation project tracing the impact of the policy of providing balanced school meals for all young children, on bodyweight outcomes, rates of absence as a result of ill health and attainment in school tests, with the full results due to be published early this summer.

Campaigners want the government to roll the policy out to all primary and secondary schoolchildren, in a bid to counter a predicted rise in childhood obesity levels.

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