Naked lunch box

26th March 2010 at 00:00
School lunchtimes can be a nutritional minefield of E-numbers, fizzy drinks and salty snacks - and that's just what the teachers eat. Meabh Ritchie delved into the lunch boxes of one group of staff

It is a poor state of affairs if a serving of spaghetti hoops is counted as one of your five a day. But this used to be the case at Surrey Square Junior School in Southwark, London.

"Our school dinners used to be terrible - baked beans and tinned spaghetti were the only thing in the way of vegetables that the kids were served," says Kelly Howell, business manager at the school. "The kids were always hungry and after lunch they would be badly behaved."

This is precisely why nutritional standards for school dinners were introduced in 2006, meaning that schools would essentially be breaking the law if they failed to meet the required guidelines.

However, the power of the School Food Trust (SFT), which regulates school dinners, doesn't extend to packed lunch and a study of 1,300 pupils' lunch boxes published in January found that only 1 per cent met the SFT's nutritional guidelines. Over a quarter of the children had a packed lunch containing sweets, savoury snacks and sugary drinks and only one in five contained any vegetables.

The battle to get pupils eating healthily is now well established. But would teachers' lunch boxes be any better? Charlotte Evans, the nutritionist who carried out the research, says that when it comes to the lack of fruit and vegetables, the lunch boxes often reflect what most adults eat.

"It's much easier to have a healthy, cooked meal than a packed lunch," she says. "Even as a nutritionist, I would find it difficult to get a packed lunch in a supermarket with all the nutrients now required for school meals. Snack food by nature is quite dry, but that means it has nearly twice the levels of fat, salt and sugar to make it taste good."

The number of professionals bringing packed lunches to work has increased since the recession as belts are tightened. Research last year from Mintel, the consumer research agency, found that the number bringing in homemade sandwiches had increased by a quarter since 2008.

It also found that while we are more aware of the need to eat healthy food, busy lifestyles prevent about a third of consumers from making healthy choices. At the end of the day, convenience wins out, and is the biggest factor influencing what adults have for lunch.

Teachers might be considered luckier than most, with a canteen on hand in most schools that is obliged to offer a nutritious cooked lunch every day (as opposed to Turkey Twizzlers and lumpy custard). But aside from the additional cost of buying lunch daily instead of bringing in something from home, sitting down to a hot meal is not always the most convenient option for busy teachers. Many opt to eat a snack at their desk or at the same time as marking in the staffroom. And that's when lunch has actually been planned, as opposed to consisting of the closest thing to hand in the rush from photocopier to classroom.

"If they took some of the stress away with league tables, Sats, piles of pointless planning and paperwork, constant checking up on and observations and just let us do the job we are meant to be paid to do, I wager a lot fewer teachers would be porkers (myself included)," confessed one teacher on the TES forums.

The selection of lunches on display when TES Magazine was invited to Surrey Square Junior were generally of a very high nutritional standard, much better than those in the pupil survey. The staffroom is a relaxing place, with a communal table and a couple of leather sofas, and teachers are clearly enjoying their lunch. The school is part of the Food for Life partnership, so the food for school lunches is organic and sourced from within a 20-mile radius. As well as reforming the canteen, which is now used by almost 80 per cent of the pupils, staff cracked down on packed lunches and parents and pupils know that they have to meet certain standards.

It is no surprise that teachers' eating habits are good in schools that take pride in their healthy eating schemes, as this often filters through to the staff themselves, says Robert Beattie, head of Healthy Schools. "Teachers often say to me that through teaching about the importance of healthy eating and integrating emotional health and well-being into their school day, they also (become) more aware about looking after their own health choices," he says.

Surrey Square Junior staff agree. "We insist that they eat healthily and I lead that (programme), so I feel like I should be setting a good example," says Nicola Noble, deputy head (who has couscous salad, chickpeas and chicken for lunch). "If I was sitting here eating a load of rubbish I'd feel like a hypocrite."

Teachers here are encouraged to eat the school lunches from time to time so they can model eating vegetables and using cutlery for the children.

"We got them eating spinach by saying it would make them big and strong like Ed, one of the teachers, who's muscly," says Ms Howell.

Dishes on the menu range from roast chicken to Caribbean Jollof rice, and the food caters for the requirements of the school's diverse population: there is a vegetarian menu, all the meat is halal and pork is never an option. Year 3 teacher Vera Kowalchuk has a school dinner two or three times a week.

"I usually bring in a bag of groceries and make my lunches from that, but if I like what's being served then I'll eat at the canteen," she says.

Teachers' meals are free so they are definitely a nutritious, budget option, "but sometimes you need adult time", she says.

Eating the same thing every day for lunch would drive some people mad, but Nicky Jewell, the school's learning facilitator, is happy with soup every day and doesn't like a heavy lunch.

"I'd feel drowsy in the afternoon and wouldn't do any work," she says. In Ms Jewell's household, there's a bit of a role reversal when it comes to choosing the lunches. "I'm not allowed anything unhealthy because my two children come to this school and they have packed lunches - they would crucify me if I had anything bad," she says. "They would never forgive me!"

Stress is a big factor in determining what we eat, and can make even the most dedicated alfalfa-sprout eater deviate from their healthy lunch. "I have an emergency box of chocolates that I can go to - I get given them every so often - and if we have a meeting and everyone's knackered, I pull them out," says head Liz Robinson.

Teaching is the third most stressful profession in the UK, according to research by the Stroke Association, and something sweet and full of energy often brings comfort. "After a harrowing lesson, you don't need an apple or a carrot - you just don't," says primary teacher Roberta Adams*. "You need a chocolate biscuit or a muffin, and a creamy, frothy cappuccino."

Despite the odd chocolate or tea-time biscuit, the messages about healthy eating are hitting home, both to children and adults at Surrey Square. However, financial concerns are still a big factor in lunchtime food choices, and healthy food that is additive-free still costs more than food with less nutritional content.

"Food manufacturers need to come up with ways of making snack food and food that people have for their lunch more healthy," says nutritionist Ms Evans.

Even if pupils' lunch boxes still aren't up to scratch, food culture in schools has already undergone a massive turnaround and this is hopefully going to make things easier for teachers as well.

"It's not going to happen overnight," she says, "but things will change gradually, step by step."

* Name has been changed

Zeenat Sultana, learning facilitator

I'm fond of meat so I put in a little bit of lamb - I think a meal isn't complete without some. I made the vegetable stew last night, and sometimes use frozen vegetables. If I make something I can't leave it for a few days because my husband will have some as well and there won't be any left. We are used to cooking at home so it doesn't feel like a hassle. I love it.

School Food Trust senior nutritionist Claire French's verdict

The bread provides starchy carbohydrate, which is important for providing energy for the busy afternoon ahead, while the lamb is a good source of protein and nutrients such as iron and zinc, which are needed for a healthy immune system. It's good to see that Zeenat has included vegetables in her lunch. School lunches are required to provide a portion of fruit for each pupil, and Zeenat could include fruit with her lunch each day.

Robin Spencer, music teacher and Senco

I have a tin of Heinz soup every day, but different types - quite often it's tomato or chicken. Sometimes I have a piece of fruit or a yoghurt after - it depends what is in the cupboard. I find if I eat too much then I'm quite lethargic in the afternoon. School dinners are great, but I find if I have a dinner at school and one at home, it's too much.

Nutritionist's verdict

Eating lots of ready-made foods such as soups can mean that we eat too much salt, as most of the salt we consume is contained in processed foods. We should all try to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day, and Robin could include a portion of fruit in his lunch. It's good to see that he thinks school lunches are great. But if he doesn't want to eat a full two-course lunch, he could look for lighter options.

Nicola Noble, deputy headteacher

It's quite a mismatch of food as it's the remainder of the lunches I've had this week. It's all from Marks amp; Spencer because I walk past it on the way home so it's easy. I want something that's going to fill me up. I get really hungry at about four o'clock so I need something that will stop me snacking - things like couscous, chickpeas or hummus.

Nutritionist's verdict

Couscous and chickpea salads are good options as they provide carbohydrate, protein and vegetables. If Nicola wants a lunch option that is quick and easy, she could see if there is a salad bar available at her school. She may find that this a more cost-effective option than buying pre-prepared salad from supermarkets.

Liz Robinson, headteacher

I like this kind of lunch because it feels like you are eating a lot even though it's quite healthy. And I like eating! I love smoked fish and I have alfalfa sprouts on my plate because they are supposed to be very good for you. I'm not Mrs Atkins diet or anything, but I think less carbs at lunch definitely helps with the afternoon slump.

Nutritionist's verdict

Although Liz doesn't like to eat carbs at lunchtime, starchy foods should make up about a third of the food we eat and are important for providing energy as well as fibre, vitamins and minerals. She could eat wholegrain starchy foods such as wholemeal bread with her lunch. These are digested slowly and help us feel full for longer.

Vera Kowalchuk, Year 3 teacher

I generally like to eat a healthy lunch, but that's time permitting - sometimes they take a bit longer to prepare. If I don't have time I will often have last night's leftovers - that's quite common. If it wasn't this roast chicken, it would be spaghetti bolognaise today.

Nutritionist's verdict

It's good to hear that Vera eats school lunches when she can - the food provided at lunchtime in schools is required to meet food-based and nutrient-based standards, so she can still eat the healthy lunch that she prefers to have.

Nicky Jewell, learning facilitator

I always have soup and I mash a piece of bread into it when it's hot. Sometimes my mum makes a big pot of stew and I will get some leftovers.

Nutritionist's verdict

Bringing leftover stew for lunch is a good way to ensure that you eat vegetables as part of your meal, and if this also contains meat this is a good source of protein and minerals, too. It is good to see that Nicky has included a portion of fruit in her lunch. If she is still hungry after eating her soup, she could try including another item such as a teacake or fruit bread.

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