The obesity crisis can be solved and it is schools that are best placed to do it, because parents are "too hard to reach and much too expensive to teach", according to Prue Leith, the chef and judge on The Great British Bake Off.
There is only one “certain chance” of influencing the way the nation eats and that is when children are “corralled in school”, Ms Leith told a food conference near Edinburgh this morning as she set out her "template" for solving the obesity crisis.
Ms Leith, who is a co-judge on Channel 4's The Great British Bake Off, called for schools to be made responsible for teaching children to eat good food – as they are in Finland – and for lunchtime to “become a lesson” and "part of the curriculum". Everyone, including staff, should sit down together in the dining hall, she said, with the meals staggered so that “awful” queuing was rendered unnecessary.
Packed lunches brought from home should be banned “with immediate effect” – as well as other food brought from home – so that unhealthy snacks were avoided and children had an appetite by lunchtime and were “more likely to try what’s on offer”, Ms Leith said.
Phones should also be banned at lunchtime, she added, and children should be taught “table manners”.
All children should eat the same lunch unless they had special dietary requirements – there should be no choice, she added.
“The problem with choice is that children are innately conservative,” explained Ms Leith, who said she had been "banging on about" the importance of children learning about food in school since the 1970s. “They know what they like and that’s what they will choose. If there is pizza on the cafeteria menu, they will eat pizza. They will have it every day of the year.
“The menu should change every day so children get to taste a variety of foods. Too many caterers think having a salad bar somewhere in the corner, which most of the students ignore, is a healthy choice. It is only healthy if it gets eaten.”
Packed lunches had to be banned, said Ms Leith, because parents could not be trusted to give their children healthy food.
It did not matter how often parents were told “a treat should not be an everyday affair”, they were “mostly totally unable to resist putting a finger of fudge or a little packet of crisps or some little cake into that lunch box”.
“I’m afraid we have to forget about parents,” said Ms Leith at the event organised by the charity Children in Scotland. “Yes, they are important but it’s mostly too late. Sometimes we have had two or three generations of parents who have never learned to cook in school and who know nothing about it. To be brutal, parents are much too hard to reach and much too expensive to teach.”
In England, cookery lessons are now compulsory up to the age of 14. However, Ms Leith claimed that only 40 per cent of schools had complied, because of a lack of trained teachers and money for ingredients, and the absence of sanctions for schools that did not deliver.
“They don’t get the money to do it and they don’t get sanctioned for not doing it, so unless the head is really keen, nothing happens,” Ms Leith said.
She concluded: “We do know what works we just lack the political courage to get on with it.”
Ms Leith was speaking at "Biting back: transforming food experiences for Scotland's children", a conference held at Queen Margaret University in Musselburgh, near Edinburgh.