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Healthy eating catches on

The quality of food in primary and special schools is improving - even when burgers and sausages are served - but more work is needed to encourage pupils to make wise choices, according to the first HMIE progress report on the Hungry for Success policy.

Claire Alison and Laura Nicol, the two specialist nutrition associate assessors seconded to HMIE to monitor the healthy eating programme, said that good progress overall has been made in implementing the recommendations to improve school meals.

Both trained nutritionists, they found a number of examples of good practice, but not a single primary or special school "ticked every single box" in making Hungry for Success a whole-school initiative. The target date for implementation in secondary schools is December next year and this sector has not yet been reviewed.

Most authorities have been concentrating on bringing in the new Scottish Nutrient Standards for School Lunches, although some are still struggling to meet the two toughest targets - on sodium and salt levels in food and providing sufficient iron content.

Salt levels are gradually being reduced, however, in part because manufacturers are changing their practices. School canteens are now better at incorporating "hidden" iron sources in meals, such as making spaghetti bolognese with a variety of pureed vegetables and including more pureed vegetables in soup.

The quality of ingredients used in burgers, pizzas and breaded items is also improving and schools that serve them do so as part of a balanced weekly menu.

"These menus are balanced over the week but schools also have to keep them child-friendly so that children recognise them," Ms Alison said. "We are trying to encourage authorities to keep foods that children recognise, such as mince and potatoes, but to make them with less salt and better meat."

The nutrition assessors call for further work to persuade children to eat school meals and to make healthy choices and more work on partnerships with parents. Scotland already leads the UK in improving the quality of school food, and the "Jamie Oliver effect" has heightened interest and awareness among parents.

Their remit did not cover the issue of making all school meals free, but the report does call for more work on making the existing entitlement to free meals more anonymous. A few schools asked parents to send payment for meals directly to the school. Other methods included handling no money in the dining room, which also assisted in reducing queues.

In most schools, there were systems which contributed to reducing potential stigma but did not necessarily remove it, such as enabling pupils to pay for meals before school started or at the school office, rather than in their classrooms.

However, in some schools children on free school meals were the only ones who were given tickets. This was "clearly not good practice". Ms Alison, a senior health promotion officer from Fife Health Promotion Department, and Ms Nicol, senior development worker in children's health initiatives with Edinburgh Community Food Initiative, warn: "Pupils were still asked to identify themselves in class if they were having a free school meal or to stand in a separate queue."

The report, drawn from inspections of 33 primary and six special schools in 27 authorities, also raises issues over taking meals to schools rather than cooking them on the premises. "These included concerns about the temperature of food and the quality of some items. Where good relationships existed between the headteacher and the catering service, such issues were less problematic."

The quantity of food was appropriate in most cases, although in a few cases it was not. Where pupils were still hungry after their meal, this was due mainly to not selecting their full entitlement, the assessors reported.

"Additional items such as home baking, crisps and drinks were available to be purchased in a few schools. This had led to some pupils not choosing fruit or vegetables with their meal, knowing that they could purchase these less healthy snack items. Schools should ensure that all staff are working together to promote healthy choices."

Pupil involvement was seen as crucial in discussion of what to sell in tuck shops or how the dining room should be decorated.

The report found a few examples of pupils' enjoyment of mealtimes being reduced, for example by schools expecting them to eat in silence and to sit in assigned seats.

It adds: "In several schools, staff chose to eat with pupils in the dining room. However, this occasionally caused problems where staff were seen to be given special treatment, for example being allowed to use (items) such as salt or sauce that pupils were discouraged from using."

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