Case For Action
A healthy balanced diet in childhood and adolescence is not only important for healthy growth and development but is essential to help us learn and develop good dietary habits that can remain with us into adulthood and help us lead longer, healthier lives.
In Scotland, the diet of children and young people continues to fall short of nutritional recommendations. In 2012, around 30% of children aged 2-15 in Scotland were overweight or obese. Children and young people are consuming diets that are too high in fat and sugar and too low in fruit and vegetables. Recent surveys have shown that, despite some improvements, only 13% of 2-15 year olds are meeting the recommended intake of five or more fruit and vegetables per day. Sugar intake amongst children is of particular concern with the consumption of soft drinks and confectionary contributing 16% and 13% respectively to a child's daily intake of sugar. Children and young people living in low income areas are even more likely to have a poor diet: eating more sugary foods and drinks and less fruit and vegetables than children from more affluent areas.
Children and young people spend on average six hours a day at school and it has been estimated that 30-35% of their total daily energy intake occurs during the school day. This means that the food and drinks that children and young people consume throughout the school day can substantially influence their overall diet and energy intake.
Schools have long been established as a route through which to promote healthier eating habits among children and young people. In Scotland, school food is regulated under The Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) (Scotland) Act 2007 and The Nutritional Requirements for Food and Drink in Schools (Scotland) Regulations 2008, which set strict nutritional criteria for all food and drink served in schools. In 2013, 53% and 44% of primary and secondary school children respectively took a school meal. With the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence, (CfE) health and wellbeing, including food and health, is now an integral part of all aspects of learning and is at the heart of school policy development and implementation. CfE also focuses on social wellbeing and encourages children and young people to explore their rights and responsibilities to participate in society, represent their class, school or wider community and bring about change in the wider community.
Equally important is the food environment outside of schools and its influence on the food and drink choices of children and young people. In a recent study, 63% of all secondary school pupils reported sometimes purchasing food and/or drinks outside of school at lunchtime. Recent research by Children in Scotland found that children and young people choose to leave the school grounds at lunchtime for a variety of reasons including: they enjoy the freedom and fresh air; the choice of food on offer; perceived value for money; or to be with friends. Furthermore, children and young people from more deprived areas and those in S3-4 were found to be more likely to purchase food or drinks outside of school at lunchtime.
Unlike schools, the food and drink available from nearby outlets is not required to meet nutritional regulations. Various studies,  have highlighted the wide availability of foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) from outlets near schools. Research in 2012 by Glasgow Centre for Population Health and the Food Standards Agency in Scotland on foods available from outlets in the vicinity of schools showed that the majority of the food and drink on offer contrasts sharply with that offered in schools which is governed by nutritional standards, . Research has also indicated that a majority of the foods purchased by children and young people outside school during the school day exceeded recommended levels of saturated fat and provided more than the recommended calories from fat and sugar.
A recent survey by Young Scot found:
- Over 70% of respondents can access at least four food outlets in the vicinity of school;
- Just over half of respondents could access a local food outlet within 5 minutes' walk, over 80% in up to 10 minutes;
- On average, children and young people had £2.82 to spend on lunch each day;
- Nearly 70% reported having to queue for 5 minutes or less to purchase their lunch at a local outlet;
- Price and type of food on offer were the most important factors, although promotions and social issues were also important;
- Supermarkets, convenience stores, sandwich shops and bakeries were the most popular outlets; and
- 22% of children and young people reported never using the school food facilities.
It is recognised that some children and young people may bring a packed lunch to school. Young Scot found that around 15% of young people of secondary school age bring a packed lunch to school every day. Guidance providing options for packed lunches is already available locally and it is up to local authorities and schools to decide how best to disseminate this guidance to parents and children and young people.
It is clear that there is considerable scope for food outlets near schools to support and positively influence children and young people's food and drink choices. There is a clear need to reduce the disparity between the food and drink on offer within and outwith schools and rebalance the proportion of healthier choices available to children and young people, regardless of where they choose to eat. In this way we can help to create a food environment outside of schools that is health promoting and better supports and complements the activity going on within schools. Furthermore, the wider community is also likely to benefit from improved access to healthier, affordable and sustainable food choices from local outlets.
Email: Christopher Russell