Quite a statement, I know. For those of you who follow my work, you may not think this statement fits with what I talk about – which is that no food is banned unless it’s inedible (e.g. past it’s use by date, not an edible object, or off the menu due to a medical condition like gluten is for coeliacs).
So why am I suggesting banning a food?
I’m not saying processed meat should be banned completely, although I know people who think it should! I’m saying it should be banned specifically from nursery and school menus. Why?
There is growing evidence that too much processed meat can increase our risk of developing certain illnesses. The evidence is strong when considering the risk of developing bowel cancer. Processed meat is also high in salt which can be too much for little ones’ kidneys to handle and, even in smaller amounts, can lead them develop a taste for salty foods. Too much salty food over time can increase our risk of high blood pressure and osteoporosis so salt isn’t a food we want to become too accustomed to.
So, if we can have some processed meat, why shouldn’t it be on our nursery and school menus?
There is the obvious reason: that we want the best for our children, so if something increases their risk of disease and there is a good alternative, we should give them that alternative. But, in my opinion, it’s more than this.
Processed meat is generally cheaper than unprocessed meat. Research suggests that the quality of our diets is linked to the income we have. So, families on low incomes are more likely to be consuming more processed meat than those on higher incomes. Data confirms this. This isn’t about judgement – I know parents and carers are trying to do their best for their children and give them something to eat – it’s about recognising the reality of the situation. That’s why I am suggesting a ban on processed meat on nursery and school menus (not just restricting it like the current School Food Standards and nursery guidelines suggest).
I’m passionate about reducing health inequalities. What are health inequalities? They are the difference in health based on postcode, gender, income etc. In the case of income, health inequalities are how long you are expected to live based on how much money you have – well, the difference between the most wealthy and the least well off. In England, it can be over a decade’s difference between those with the most money and those with the least. And it’s not just about how long you live but how many healthy years you have too. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to just be alive a long time but I also want to be able to do the things I want to do during that time.
Food is one part of health inequalities that we can do something about. If we banned processed meat from nursery and school menus, children who still eat processed meat at home would have less of it in total. It’s simple maths. Some children are in nursery for all their weekday meals through most of the year. School-age children are in school for lunches (which is often their main meal in households where money is tight) for 26 weeks of the year. Taking away the processed meat at nursery and school would mean a lot less processed meat in their diet, even if it isn’t currently on the menu every day.
This basic maths would reduce the health risk which comes with eating lots of processed meat. Children would also get to experience unprocessed meat (and unprocessed plant-based proteins) in an environment with support and with their peers. This will help them become accustomed to these foods as part of their normal diet.
So, what am I suggesting gets wiped off the menu?
Surely I am not going to deny children a burger? No! Burgers can stay, they just need to be made from quality mince (pork, beef, turkey etc). Sausages, bacon, ham, luncheon meat, cheap burgers and meatballs would go. Children can still have them at home; as I said, I am not suggesting banning these completely, but reducing the overall quantity would reduce their risk of ill health.
Quality meat is more expensive than processed meat. That’s exactly why I am suggesting taking processed meat off the menu of schools and nurseries (because it’s the cheaper option that low income households are having to opt for). But that doesn’t necessarily mean that costs to parents (or the tax payer) would have to rise if we took processed meat off the menu. Using cheaper cuts of meat, fish, eggs, seeds, nuts and pulses are all alternatives. We can still provide children with all their protein needs without the processed meat and without all the extra salt. (Oh, and don’t forget the cost to the tax payer would reduce later down the line if people don’t get ill – so this is an economically sound, not just morally sound, argument).
Trust me, I have planned budget, balanced menus without processed meat. It might need some creativity but ask one of the many families on low incomes for creative ways to eat on a budget and you will be amazed at their resourcefulness – the blanket statement that people are struggling because they can’t budget is completely untrue.
We have come a long way since Jamie Oliver’s campaign against Turkey Twizzlers but processed meat is very much still on the menu – even if it is better quality than it was. Our children deserve better. Our healthcare system deserves better. Our health inequalities need to reduce.
Will you join me in this call for processed meat to be wiped off nursery and school menus?
World Cancer Research Fund recommendations:
Kantar data showing the change in consumer behaviour: https://www.thegrocer.co.uk/meat/is-it-the-end-of-cheap-meat-meat-fish-poultry-and-eggs-category-report-2022/672359.article
Processed food and cancer – new study https://www.wcrf.org/latest/news-and-updates/ultra-processed-food-increases-cancer-rates-new-research-shows