The government wants to improve children’s diets by banning packed lunches and barring children from leaving school at lunchtime to prevent them from buying unhealthy food.
School lunches are healthier, the government says - chef Jamie Oliver’s nine-year campaign played a good hand in this - and they’ve earmarked £15m to subsidise school meals and offer breakfast clubs for those kids arriving hungry at school in the mornings.
Childhood obesity is an increasing problem and is caused by a simple imbalance between energy in (food) and energy out (exercise and activity) and any attempt at prevention or cure needs to address this imbalance.
School lunches are one key part of this equation and if schools can offer low cost, healthy meals then all would be great.
Energy in: ‘grab bags’ and vending machines
But the government can’t leave it at this. The current recommendations have been drawn up by the founders of the food company Leon. Leon claim to be “naturally fast food”. But it is the wider food industry that the government needs to tackle.
Portion sizes are getting bigger with “grab bags” and double chocolate bars now the norm, snack foods with no nutritional content are everywhere, fizzy drinks are sold in vending machines at leisure centres and supermarkets place their unhealthy foods at eye level at the request of the manufacturers.
Foods labelled “healthy eating”, “low fat” or “no sugar” can mask what they actually do contain and fast food restaurants offer meal deals to encourage overeating. This is the power of the food industry and this is what should be addressed.
Energy out: computers and TV
And then there is the “energy out” side of the equation. Children spend more time than ever on computers or watching TV, not helped by parent’s fear of cars and the sense that it is dangerous “out there”.
The lack of street lighting, pavements, cycle paths, playgrounds or leisure centres doesn’t help. Perhaps the government could also tackle town planning and local facilities in their plan for obesity.
So there is still a lot to do and if school lunches are to a part of it they must be healthy and cheap. But is banning and barring the way forward?
A government has two options if it is to challenge our obesogenic environment (one that’s full of things that make us fat). It can ban and bar individuals from being unhealthy. Or it can ban and bar those responsible for our environment.
I’m in favour of a nanny state that makes healthy eating more likely and being active the norm. But as a parent I find it difficult to deal with being banned from doing what I want to do.
Other parents who feel provide healthy packed lunches would probably feel the same. And some parental education for what is a healthy packed lunch could be helpful - something Jamie Oliver recognised as part of his campaign.
A few years ago, some colleagues and I carried out a study on patient choice. People in our study felt that having choice was important and didn’t want this taken away. People were happy for the experts to “make” choices for them, based on a number of options.
But patients and parents are different beasts. The government can be a nanny state by limiting the choices that we have. But they can’t make our choices for us. I’m an advocate for more government intervention but this makes me flinch. They may be the experts at politics but they are certainly not the experts of our day-to-day lives.