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Is it possible to get an F in lunch?

January 12, 2010 |  7:00 am

British schoolchildren are flunking a very important subject -- lunch.

Lunch Researchers at the University of Leeds examined 1,300 meals that primary school students brought in brown bags and lunch boxes and determined that only 1.1% of the meals met the government’s nutritional standards, according to a study published online today in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Lead researcher Charlotte Evans said she wasn’t surprised by the findings.

“It reflects the typical diet of the whole population,” she told the BBC. “Most adults would also have crisps or a chocolate bar and not enough fruit or veg in their lunchbox.”

In defense of the students, the British standards are rather high. To earn an A, a lunch must include two servings of fruits and vegetables; one protein from meat, fish or another nondairy source; and a starch. They also have to be low in salt, fat and sugar, among other criteria.

If you have a hard time visualizing what such a well-balanced meal would look like, here’s a helpful graphic from Britain's Food Standards Agency.

Not satisfied to simply report the study’s findings, the Independent conducted its own investigation. The British newspaper’s unofficial survey at Coleraine Park Primary School in north London found a healthy-packed-lunch rate of about 1.25%. According to this report:

Chocolate abounded. The first lunchbox we uncovered ... contained a chocolate spread sandwich on white bread and a packet of crisps. Another included a cheese pastry, a packet of Hula Hoops and a chocolate biscuit. However, we did then unearth one containing an orange, orange juice, water and a chicken sandwich. Given that about 80 students at Coleraine Park come in every day with packed lunches, we were lucky to find one so nutritional in its content.

Perhaps British kids -- or their parents -- are simply overwhelmed by the country’s nutritional standards and don’t know where to start. In that case, they can simply copy the menus of select British primary schools.

At George Dixon Primary School in Birmingham, the cafeteria serves up such specialties as lamb spaghetti Bolognese, chicken tikka, lentil roast, cheese and sweetcorn flan, parsley potatoes and naan bread, among other dishes. Desserts include oaty fruit crumble, cinnamon raisin buns and chocolate cookies. (Sounds like lunchtime at Google headquarters.) All of the recipes are online for ambitious home cooks.

A few more surprising tidbits from the study: The packed food least likely to be eaten by kids was fruit; the most likely to be eaten was dessert.

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo: A new study finds room for improvement in British sack lunches (though this photo was actually taken at Acton Elementary School in the U.S.). Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times