3.4. Leaving School at Lunchtime
In the PRQ, 77% (n = 412) of young people said they left school to purchase food or drink at least twice a week (classified by the research team as “regularly” purchasing outside school at lunchtime). The proportion of young people from each school regularly purchasing food or drink beyond the school gate differed. The smallest percentage of students reporting going out regularly was from Sch06 (42.6%), the least deprived school studied, with a low density of food outlets available. The highest proportions who said that they regularly purchased something outside of school at lunchtime were from Sch05 (92.4%) and Sch01 (90.0%), two of the most socio-economically deprived of those that took part (with a high and moderate density of food outlets, respectively).
On the day the PRQ was administered (see Table 4
), 53.6% of students said they purchased at least one food or drink item outside school at lunchtime. Across schools, this ranged from around one quarter of students at Sch06 (high SES, low food outlet density) to two thirds in some of the schools (Sch01 low SES, moderate food outlet density; Sch05 low SES, high food outlet density; Sch04 mixed SES, moderate food outlet density)
Young people shopped at a variety of outlets at lunchtime. The most popular outlets where purchases were made were takeaways, chip shops or fast food outlets (25.8%); newsagents and sweet shops (25.1%); supermarkets (23.0%); and grocery or corner shops (20.1%). Sixteen percent of young people purchased something from a sandwich shop or bakery and 11.1% bought from a burger, chip or ice cream van. No discernible patterns according to SES were found though the availability of outlets was, not surprisingly, related to differences in purchasing from each outlet category at each school.
The most commonly reported food items purchased outside school at lunchtime were chips (26.1%); hot or cold sandwiches, filled rolls or baguettes (23.9%); sweets (21.4%); chocolate (20.2%); and crisps or similar snacks (19.3%). Few students said they purchased fruit (4.2%) or salad (1.7%) outside school at lunchtime. The questionnaire data show that most young people purchasing chips did so from independent rather than chain outlets. The PRQ data also shows that many young people who purchased chips consumed them with other high fat or high salt items such as cheese, curry sauce, fried rice or gravy. Schools where there were more outlets selling items such as chips nearby were those where a higher proportion of pupils reported purchasing chips at lunchtime—Sch01 (37.8%) (low SES, moderate food outlet density) and Sch05 (40.5%) (low SES, high food outlet density). A lower proportion of all reported food purchases were chips at Sch02 (6.9%) (low SES, low food outlet density) and Sch07 (3.6%) (mixed SES, high food outlet density), where chip shops and takeaways were less likely to be available nearby. Sweets represented a high proportion of all food purchases reported by pupils from Sch01 (35.6%) (low SES, moderate food outlet density), Sch02 (44.8%) (low SES, low food outlet density) and Sch03 (25.8%) (low SES, moderate food outlet density).
Fieldwork observations and focus group data suggest that very few students bought food to share at lunchtime; few bought large “sharing” bags of sweets, for example. The schools where a higher proportion of young people reported purchasing sweets overall were often those where food outlets sold unpackaged sweets, either through “pick and mix” selections in supermarkets or convenience stores or from ice cream vans that sold individually priced sweets from larger bags. This meant young people could spend very little but still purchase sweets.
The most commonly purchased drinks among young people who bought one outside school at lunchtime (n = 200) were regular sugar sweetened drinks (n = 84; 42.0%) and energy drinks (n = 67; 33.5%). The number of young people reporting purchasing energy drinks and regular sugar sweetened drinks beyond the school gate at lunchtime represents 28.2% (n = 151) of all pupils who completed the PRQ (not just those who reported purchasing a drink).
Drink purchases were bought from a variety of outlet types though it was notable that at one of the low SES schools (Sch02) drinks were likely to be bought from ice cream vans (this school had a low food outlet density, so choice was limited). Many pupils from Sch02 and Sch03 (both low SES schools, with a low and moderate food outlet density respectively) reported not consuming much food before school or during mid-morning break. The PRQ data show, for example, that a commonly observed pattern in the data for a pupil reporting a sugar sweetened drink or energy drink purchase at lunchtime at Sch02 was a cup of tea before school; water at mid-morning break and an energy drink for lunch (with no food consumption or purchase reported).
3.5. Reasons for Buying Food and Drink Beyond the School Gate at Lunchtime
In the PRQ, young people were asked to rate the importance of 19 factors in relation to all the food and drink they purchased outside school on the day the questionnaire was administered (see Table 5
). Taste was rated as the most important factor by far, with 97.5% of respondents agreeing that taste was important when they selected what to purchase beyond the school gate; the ingredients or component elements of a product (such as a sandwich) were also considered important by almost three quarters of participants (72.8%). Table 5
highlights that young people at the school with high SES (Sch06) were less likely than other young people to rate taste or ingredients as important. Price, offers and discounts were rated as important by pupils overall (88.9%, 60.9%, and 60.5%, respectively). Young people at Sch06 (high SES; low food outlet density) were particularly unlikely to rate advertisements as a factor affecting their purchasing habits.
Taste and price were factors that also frequently emerged from the qualitative data analysis. For example, there were many comments from students about purchasing food or drink outside school such as “you can have more for the price [you] paid or even more variety” (Sch02) and “I only had £1 and the food is really nice” (Sch05).
The qualitative analysis highlighted the main reasons for students to leave school at lunchtime. The reasons given indicated a negative perception about the food and drinks offered in schools, including not feeling satisfied with the food offered, poor quality food and service, high prices, poor value for money, disliking the (prepaid card) system of payment, queuing for food and the overall environment or the eating environment in school. For example, pupils reported:
“The school never put the tables out anymore (in the canteen) so there is nowhere to sit”
(Sch02, low SES, low food outlet density)
“You have to have exact money in school, which is annoying”
(Sch03, low SES, moderate food outlet density)
“If I was to stay in school all the time…I’d spend like a lot more money than I do outside school…the pizza is like £4, the popcorn is 60p, the juice is 25p, that’s like £4.50… so I’m better going to the shop.”
(Sch07, mixed SES, high food outlet density)
The food and drink offered in schools was rarely seen as healthy as well as “tasty”, with fruit seen as very poor quality for example (“disgusting”, “all squishy” (Sch04; mixed SES, moderate food outlet density)). Some students commented that healthy options should be available within schools, yet this was not always perceived to be the case (“the school want [us] to eat healthy and then you go there and there is pizza and cookies’ (Sch06; high SES, low food outlet density)). Young people at Sch06, the least deprived of our schools, were most likely to comment on the (un)healthiness of the food and drink available to them and this was the only school where young people said they talked with parents about whether their lunchtime practices were healthy or not. The Kitchen Supervisor and Head Teacher at this school said that parents phoned them to discuss their children’s diets or to ask for advice about encouraging more nutritious choices, the only school where this was reported.
highlights that from the eight factors included in the PRQ about reasons to visit specific places to purchase food or drink, young people were more likely to report going somewhere because their friends go there (88.9 %) or the outlet was close to their school (87.3%). Less important but still a consideration for more than half of participants were the atmosphere of the outlet (58.2%) and the availability of special offers and meal deals (57.8%).
The qualitative data provide further, more nuanced insights. Students who reported going outside school at lunchtime said they did so for a range of reasons, including to consume specific food and drink items not readily available in school (such as chips, salt and sugar-sweetened drinks), and to access food and drink at lower prices; lower prices were perceived as offering value for money. Prices were often discounted for school children at independent outlets, facilitating their purchasing habits. Most students wanted to buy what they considered as good quality food, for example there were comments about food that was too greasy being available beyond the school gate, meaning these young people shopped around to find food that suited their tastes.
“[Food] at the Spar shop…the hot food is too greasy. It makes my hands feel horrible. Like when you bite into it and you get the oil”
(Sch07; mixed SES, high food outlet density)
Young people also said that they like to take a break during the school day and like to get fresh air at lunchtime. A desire to spend time with friends was more likely to be achieved by leaving school, since there were more places to socialise and young people did not feel rushed; in school, where catering staff wanted the cafeteria to be cleared as soon as food was consumed, participants felt less comfortable.
“The girl who owns the cafeteria or whatever, she always chucks you out”
(Sch04; mixed SES, moderate food outlet density)
Almost three-quarters (73.8%) of students completing the PRQ agreed that the service they received in outlets beyond the school gate was important and the qualitative data also suggest that service was an influential factor. Around schools of low SES many independent retailers knew the students by name, and they worked hard to develop a good customer/retailer relationship.
“It’s a family run business…Everybody knows everybody…even the kids when they start school and their mother as well, come in here, even in the evening”
(Retailer close to Sch04; mixed SES, moderate food outlet density)
Conversely, poor service and an unwelcoming attitude emerged from the qualitative data as factors deterring some (though not all) young people from electing to purchase from some food businesses.
“There is too much queue (at the burger van), they push you and sometimes the women working there get angry”
(Sch02; low SES, low food outlet density)
Whilst the findings in Table 6
suggest that the proximity of food outlets to a school was important (87.3%), this was not borne out strongly by the qualitative analysis. Very few students mentioned distance as being important. Young people were as likely to say that they were prepared to travel further
to get the food or drink they wanted, rather than going to places that were particularly close. Students from Sch01, Sch02, Sch03 and Sch04 were observed by the research team running further than 800 m to buy specific food items or to save money by shopping “further afield” (these schools had a low or moderate food outlet density nearby). Shortening the lunch break to prevent young people frequenting external food outlets was not a successful strategy; young people still managed to buy food and drink at external outlets, including before and after school.