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Healthy meals loophole affects millions of pupils, councils warn

A loophole that exempts thousands of schools from following new healthy food standards for school meals must be closed, town hall leaders have said.

More than two million pupils attend schools that do not have to comply with new standards designed to restrict the amount of fried or pastry-based food served to children, according to the Local Government Association (LGA).

New tougher rules for school meals come into force this week, but do not apply to about 4,000 schools that became academies between September 2010 and 2014.

The standards come at the same time as Public Health England launched a campaign to encourage parents to cut back on the amount of sugar they give to children.

The new regulations call on schools to promote drinking water and limit servings of fruit juice. Schools will have to ensure there is at least one portion of vegetables or salad available every day. And there must be no more than two portions of fried food in a week.

David Simmonds, chairman of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said he wants to see the rules applied to all schools: “School autonomy is supposed to drive up standards but in the case of school meals we now have a two-tier system, where one type of school can effectively exempt pupils from healthy choices and instead chose to sell fatty and sugary foods.

"With ample evidence that good food supports good learning in the classroom, all schools should meet the same high standards.

“Councils are responsible for the challenge of tackling obesity and poor diet as part of our public health responsibilities and we do not want to see junk food on the menu in any school."

Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT teaching union, said: "The LGA is absolutely right to insist that all schools should follow the same food standard regulations. At a time of national concern about the levels of sugar in children’s diets, it makes the whole exercise far less effective if academies and free schools set up after 2010 do not have to comply."

The changes were made in response to recommendations in the School Food Plan, a review of school meals led by Leon restaurant co-founders Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent and published in 2013.

In the plan, they said that there was widespread concern over academies not being subject to the same food standards as other schools. They added that although there was no evidence of widespread slippage, “it would be wise to have some sort of safety net in place.”

The government agreed to include adherence to the standards part of the funding agreement for all schools set up since June 2014, but said in its response to the plan that it was asking for a voluntary commitment from existing schools, rather than introducing "cumbersome new legislation". 

A spokesperson for Oasis Community Learning, which runs more than 40 academies across the UK, said it was happy to sign up to the standards.

"We recognise the importance of nutrition to an effective education as well as the overall well-being of a young person," the spokesperson said. "We will continue to work with parents to ensure that each and every child has a diet that is conducive for learning and helps to lay the foundations for a healthy life."

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Schools raid maintenance budgets to pay for free lunches – 19 August 2014

School cooks urged to get creative with new school food standards – 17 June 2014

Opinion: David Laws: ‘Why I believe in universal free school meals’ – 24 May 2014

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