As part of the European Commission's efforts to help reduce childhood obesity, the Commission's in-house science service, the Joint Research Centre (JRC), has published the first comprehensive report on school food policies in Europe. It shows that European countries acknowledge the important contribution of school food to children's health, development and performance at school. All the countries studied (28 European Member States + Norway and Switzerland) have guidelines for school food, although these vary considerably. National measures aimed at promoting healthy diets in schools range from voluntary guidelines, for example for menus and portion sizes, to complete bans, including on marketing, of vending machines and sugar-sweetened drinks.
Commissioner for Health Tonio Borg said: "Nearly one in every three children in Europe are overweight or obese, and as such, risk developing a number of preventable diseases including Type 2 diabetes. Schools are important partners in our efforts to encourage children to develop healthy eating habits, so they can grow up in good health, perform well at school and develop to their full potential. This first assessment of school food policies is therefore an important contribution to our fight against obesity."
Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, responsible for Research, Innovation and Science, added: "This report provides a good basis for European policymakers, educators and scientists to investigate potential links between school food policies and public health, and evaluate the effectiveness of promoting healthy eating habits."
The report maps the most recent national policy documents for standards and guidelines on food available in primary and secondary schools. It describes these policies according to common criteria, such as foods that are allowed or banned, nutrient levels, dining facilities, catering services and marketing restrictions.
Distribution of mandatory (orange) and voluntary (blue) national school food policies across the EU28 plus Norway and Switzerland
The report also provides an overview of the regulatory situation, which is an important step towards assessing the impact of such policies on childhood obesity.
Some key facts from the report:
- Over 90% of the policies studied contain food-based standards to ensure balanced menus. This is followed by portion size guidance (76%) and nutrient-based standards for lunch (65%).
- Restrictions or recommendations related to the availability of beverages are very common (65-82%), the majority supporting (free) access to fresh drinking water and specifically limiting or banning (sugar-sweetened) soft drinks.
- Improving child nutrition, teaching healthy diet and lifestyle habits as well as reducing or preventing childhood obesity are the primary general goals shared by most countries.
- Sweet treats and savoury snacks are restricted in most policies, ranging from those that occasionally allow them to complete bans.
- Measuring the outcome of the school food policy is required or recommended in 59% of the policies. The most common outcomes that are to be measured relate to the provision of food at schools and the percentage of children who eat at school.
- Energy and fat intake are the most common parameters included in energy/nutrient-based standards for lunch (used in 65% and 56% of all policies, respectively).
- Vending machine offers are restricted in about half of the countries studied. The measures range from those which recommend healthier food options for vending machines, passing through those which ban unhealthy foods from them, to those which ban vending machines from school premises all together.
- Food marketing limitations for unhealthy foods are also a common practice.
- The mapping of school food policies was carried out with the help of the EU High Level Group on Nutrition and Physical Activity to support the 2007 EU Strategy on nutrition, overweight and obesity-related health issues, as well as the EU Action Plan on Childhood Obesity 2014-2020.