the Dragonfly journal

Obesity in Schools: To Dictate or Educate?

By Alan Jervis - @Alan_Jervis

Schools are rightly concerned with the diet of their students. In 2012, statistics compiled by the World Cancer Research Fund found that 31% of 2-15 year olds in the UK are overweight or obese. In addition, a 2009 study conducted by systematic reviewers EPPI-Centre found some correlation between child obesity and poor performance in school.

In response to these staggering statistics, some schools have taken the relatively drastic, and previously unheard of, decision to ban chips from the lunchtime menu. Others have taken a step further to even organise the removal of machines which dispense fizzy drinks, bags of crisps and sweets.

But as I walked home last Tuesday afternoon, I couldn’t help but observe a mass of school children gathered at my local fish and chip shop. The queue stretched from the counter to out the front door and beyond. My local supermarket, too, was brimming with students keen for their fix of fizzy drinks, crisps and sweets. Some local parents even admitted to me recently that they feel under pressure from their own family to deliver chip-based evening meals.

What these events struck me with was a sense that the approach taken by schools to ban unhealthy food seems to have had little effect on the choices that some students make.

Finding a solution to this difficult and incredibly important issue is certainly no easy task. The sheer ease of access to unhealthy foods, many of which are specifically targeted directly at children, means the diets of pre-McDonalds days may never return.

On a personal level, I suggest schools should be more about education and less about prohibition. A straightforward banning of fatty and sugary foods may prevent their consumption under the school’s supervision but does little to teach school children about why the ban is there in the first place. Nor does it aid the discouragement of consuming similar foods beyond the walls of the school canteen.

Culinary Educated Children

There are some excellent examples of schools educating students on the effects of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods. They educate students on the importance of making sensible choices and explain the implications of eating different types of food. Teachers concentrate on the student’s attitude to food and promote a lifetime of healthy eating, not simply for the duration of school lunchtime. (See @Dragonfly_Edu courses on Reducing the Poverty Gap).

Looking to the past proves all one should know about the banning of in-demand products. After all, America tried to outlaw alcohol consumption during the prohibition era and look what happened there. Where there is a will, it seems, there is a way. The matter closer to home is perhaps even more important than the States’ problem with alcohol back in the 1920s.

The long-term future of our country’s health and health service may depend on it. The Department of Health now estimates that obesity costs the NHS as much as £5.1 billion per year, a cost only likely to increase should we not teach future generations some serious lessons. As the UK’s health statistics further heighten in importance, so too does the significance in finding a successful solution in school menus.

I, for one, am for education.