Jon Slater reports.
LIKE tharound the country, politicians have been chewing the fat over school meals.
The latest offering, a government response to MPs, is likely to be the last before new nutritional requirements are published in the summer.
When Labour announced its intention to persuade kids to give up their diet of burgers, chips and chocolate, and to force school caterers to provide healthy options, it sparked a debate about just how far the Government should intervene over eating habits.
Research has pointed to the fact that children who eat well learn better, so the plans are being presented as a way to improve both education and health. And there is little doubt that British children eat badly. As the Government admits: "Intakes (of fruit and vegetables) are among the lowest in Europe, on average only three portions a day and, among children, intakes are particularly low." This compares to a recommended five portions per day.
But sometimes the simplest ideas are the hardest to get right. When David Blunkett decided before the election that he would introduce minimum nutritional standards for schools he saw a chance to tackle public concern with minimum cost and effort.
The Government's initial
proposals would have stopped caterers from offering chips more than three times a week and forced them to have fresh fruit on the menu at least twice. They also imposed a 10 to 15 per cent limit on fatty and sugary food.
However, when MPs on the education select committee examined the proposals last year, they urged ministers to adopt tougher guidelines - setting standards on nutritional content rather than types of food, and school monitoring of packed lunches that children bring from home.
In their response to the committee's report, published this week, the Government rejected both proposals as impractical and the latter as "an unnecessaryintrusion into family life". They claimed that nutrient-based standards would confuse caterers and be difficult to enforce.
However, following the report and a consultation exercise, ministers are likely to make several changes to the draft regulations and guidance.
Like the MPs, many of those who responded thought that the draft proposals needed to be simplified and the Government has indicated that the final regulations will be "less prescriptive".
The fact that almost all who commented found the limit on fatty and sugary foods difficult to swallow, could mean that that requirement will be dropped. However, unless other ways are found to cut pupils' fat and sugar intake, there will be accusations that the Government is backing down under industry pressure.
Certainly, ministers' decision to adopt a "light-touch" approach - and reject MPs' calls for school meal services to be inspected by the Office for Standards in Education - will be welcomed by caterers.
Ministers have also refused to ban specific food or drinks from school lunches or to extend the regulations to cover vending machines - although tuck shops are likely to be encouraged to stock fruit.
Yet whatever is done to make school meals healthier, will be useless if children don't eat them. Currently, more than 300,000 children entitled to school meals fail to claim them. Ministers have agreed to find out why.
Copies of the Government's "Response To The First Report from the Committee Session 1999-2000: School Meals" are available from The Stationery Office, tel: 0845 7023474, price: pound;3.40
RECIPE FOR SCHOOL MEAL REFORM?
* Minimum nutritional standards will be simplified
* Guidance will focus on food types rather than nutritional content
* Research study to be launched into the 322,000 pupils eligible for free school meals who do not claim them
* Monitoring of packed lunches rejected
* OFSTED will not inspect meals services