A NEW piece of joint research reveals that state school students are much less interested in healthy school meals than students in the private, independent school sector.
Furthermore it potentially exposes a lack of engagement between caterers and students that must be addressed if interest in healthy eating amongst students is to be ignited.
The research, which studied responses from over 2500 school students across five state schools and four independent schools, was undertaken by consultancy firm, The Litmus Partnership, in conjunction with Angela Carroll, Senior Teaching Fellow in Marketing at Leeds University Business School (LUBS), and Louise Barton, an Undergraduate Research Internship student at LUBS. It examined how different factors influenced the perceived importance of healthy options in school meals. The key findings included:
- Independent school students rate the availability of healthy food options as significantly more important to them than their State school counterparts
- Independent school students are happier with the selection of healthy options available to them than those in State schools
- Socio-economic backgrounds are likely to affect the evaluation of both satisfaction and importance
- Both female and male students in years 7-9 (ages 11-14) across both State and Independent schools attach decreasing importance on healthy options.
Thereafter, females attach increasing importance to it and males attach much less importance to it than females after a peak at age 15-16, in year 11.
- Peers at schools are an important reference group, especially for girls
- Family diet and eating traditions may impact significantly on pupils but at independent schools, pupils may also be strongly influenced by peers because of eating traditions at those schools.
Nigel Forbes, Managing Partner from the Litmus Partnership, suggests there are a number of actions that schools could take to encourage greater levels of healthy eating amongst pupils and challenge the findings, “The research showed that there is a gap between the importance of availability of healthy food choices and pupil satisfaction with these choices and it’s worrying that pupils are registering discontent with the healthy eating options available to them at school.
“Both State and Independent schools could personalise the service of healthy options or involve students more in decision making to educate and excite in nutrition. Where schools have included nutrition in their curriculums or engaged the students with activities like interactive tasting sessions with professional chefs, or even run cooking classes to prepare healthy meals, interest in healthy food has increased. That’s good news for pupil health and future society.”
According to Angela Carroll, these findings also confirm some socio-economic perceptions, “It can be safely assumed that the children at independent schools are mainly from more affluent families, whereas the pupils from State schools will probably come from a wide variety of backgrounds with varying levels of income. Research has shown that socio-economic factors, especially the effect of socialisation from family, have important effects on preferences and attitudes towards food, which in turn influences children’s perception of weight and nutrition. If parents value healthy eating highly due to more education in the subject, it’s probable that the child will mimic this attitude.”
However, peers also influence food choices and particularly with female pupils, peer pressure is a stronger predictor for eating behaviour than for males. The impact of whether school pupils are boarders at independent schools could also have an impact. For example, if State school students are only eating one meal a day at school versus their independent school counterparts who are eating all meals at school, it could be argued that independent school pupils would be more likely to consider their overall diet when choosing what to eat.
Diana Lishman, a Partner with the Litmus Partnership, believes that daily budget and time allocation can also have an impact. She explained, “In most independent schools, meals are pre-paid so children are not thinking about managing their own lunch money in the school lunch queue, unlike in State schools. From my experience, many children in State schools understand about healthier food but if time is tight or they have limited lunch money, they go for something fast and familiar like a slice of pizza rather than take the time to add up how much the salad or fruit pot extras will be, for example. Of course, this also indicates an opportunity for caterers to pitch healthier option meal deals to students so it could be win:win all round.”