Health code for meal contracts

School meal contracts should only be awarded to bidders that offer a balanced diet, a Government report recommended this week.

The report, from the Scottish Diet Action Group, also concludes that despite years of campaigning health education remains "patchy." It suggests that the message on healthy eating must be reinforced, beginning with the under-fives, and wants a compulsory component added to the secondary curriculum.

The group, chaired by Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, Minister of State at the Scottish Office, was set up to produce a "blueprint for action" over the next decade. The proposals unveiled yesterday (Thursday) represent an across-the-board attack on Scotland's unenviable dietary record.

Lord James conceded that "diet cannot be changed by decree or prescription" and hoped that by highlighting a series of practical steps improvements would follow.

George Smuga, headteacher of North Berwick High, who represented schools on the action group, believes the plan gives "a much firmer push" than previous reports on the subject. If the recommendations are implemented, Mr Smuga added, health education would have a much higher profile in the curriculum and in teacher training.

The group has developed a set of "model nutritional guidelines" and all school meals contracts will be expected to conform. The guidelines attempt to strike a balance between counsels of perfection and minimum nutritional standards, acknowledging: "It is unreasonable to expect all primary school children to be able to select meals with a balanced nutrient content."

The guidelines stipulate that "pupils should not be permitted to select a meal consisting of chippedfried potatoes only [and] must select at least one item of fruit and vegetable as part of their meal".

The report makes it clear, however, that inroads have to be made at the pre-school stage and it suggests that the Inspectorate should screen applicants under the nursery voucher scheme to ensure nutritional needs are given high priority.

The group expresses concern that health education messages are in danger of getting lost after second year in secondary school when home economics becomes an optional subject. The Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum is asked to develop a short course specifically on practical food preparation for healthy eating, which would be required study.

The report concludes: "The delivery of health education in Scotland is patchy, possibly because of insufficient pre-service training for teachers in this topic, lack of the up-to-date knowledge necessary for effective teaching of healthy eating and the pressures of an already very full curriculum."

A wider problem is the "glaring inconsistency" between what many schools practise and preach, in particular the lack of healthy choices in school canteens and the sale of unhealthy products in tuck shops and vending machines. The group commends nutrition action groups to involve pupils and parents in food-related issues.

Eating for Health: A Diet Action Plan for Scotland. From HMSO Bookshop, 71 Lothian Road, Edinburgh EH3 9AZ.

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