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Free meals are the way to health

The statistics on young people's health (page three) tell you everything about the way families lead their lives. One in three children is overweight and it is hardly surprising there is more diabetes, more cancer and more mental health disorders among young people. On many fronts, we are doing well in Scotland and have caught up with others we have traditionally viewed as more advanced.

Yet we are sharing in a "global child obesity pandemic", as a Swedish medical chief put it last month. Even in Sweden, doctors have begun screening the body mass index of four-year-olds to check for obesity. One in five seven-year-olds in Stockholm is said to be overweight. A quick web check also reveals that six-year-olds in Belfast have been taking part in a hospital-run fitness club to counter obesity.

Essentially, children - like adults - are taking in more calories than they burn up. Supermarket processed food - high in salt, fats and sugar - dominates as families become less active. Parents or carers set the pattern for their children.

Media reports in Scotland earlier this week suggested that similar screening of P1 children was about to be launched here. In fact, we have already begun, just as we have begun to tackle the "pandemic" through initiatives such as Hungry for Success, health-promoting schools and activity co-ordinators in primaries. There has been a raft of strategies for countering the fizzy drink, crisp and chocolate generation. Are they making any impact though?

The one policy we have yet to try is free, nutritious school meals, which looks increasingly more appealing as a means of countering deep-seated problems. It works for Finland, the gold standard country for almost everything, including health and school attainment.

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