There has probably never been another age when the long-term implications of what children eat has been so hotly debated. But are we right to be so concerned or are we being carried away by hype? The Government's chief medical officer has referred to obesity as a time bomb. Around 24 million adults in England are now overweight or obese, a number set to increase: the proportion of obese children aged six to 15 has risen by 29 per cent in just five years.
It is well known that obesity is associated with chronic diseases, psychological and social problems, and can shorten life expectancy by nearly a decade. Researchers have warned us that we could start seeing parents outliving their children if the trend is not reversed.
In reality, this is a complex issue and there is no silver bullet. The best approach is to prevent people getting overweight in the first place, which means a better diet and being more physically active. We all, government, the food industry, schools, health professionals and individuals, have a responsibility to take action before it is too late.
As a mother of three teenagers, I am well aware of how difficult it can be to make sure they eat well. And I know that schools are under pressure to provide healthier options, not least from pupils themselves.
One exciting initiative demonstrates that it doesn't have to be difficult.
The National School Fruit Scheme, part of our wider programme to encourage people to eat more fresh produce, is the biggest advance in child nutrition since the introduction of free school milk in the 1940s: 1 million children aged four to six receive a free piece of fruit every school day and are developing a taste for foods that can help reduce the risk of chronic disease in adulthood. When it is fully operational, more than 2 million children will be receiving fruit. We believe this is the first scheme in the world to provide free fruit daily as a universal entitlement.
A recent survey showed that around one-quarter of children and 28 per cent of families ate at least one more portion a day of fruit at home after participating in the scheme. Some schools have reported less litter, as children favour the fruit over their usual snacks of crisps and chocolate.
Others have said that they have noticed an improvement in pupils'
concentration levels and behaviour in the classroom.
There is undoubtedly more to be done. For instance, there is a growing body of evidence that providing children with drinking water throughout the school day helps to improve concentration and behaviour, as well as general health. Vending machines are popular with children, and can be a valuable source of income for schools, but the range of healthy snacks and drinks on offer is limited.
Compulsory nutritional standards are helping to improve the quality of school meals. Yet lunchboxes are still popular, and parents providing packed lunches are frequently torn between offering something they know their children will eat and a more wholesome option that could be rejected, leaving their child hungry.
During the course of the year 500 schools around the country will be contributing to the Food in Schools programme. A series of pilot projects will test how schools can implement elements of a "whole-school food approach" that exposes children to healthier options throughout the school day, through initiatives such as breakfast clubs, healthy-choice vending machines and supplying drinking water. The results will be available from 2005.
It would be naive to assume that the solutions are easy, but with a bit of creative thinking, it can be done. I recently visited Orchard primary school in Sidcup, Kent, where an inspirational headteacher has involved his school council in making healthy choices. The children suggested that they should be able to bring water bottles to class, and have facilities to keep milk cool. Every week, the Fruit Cup is awarded to the class that eats the most fruit, and I was delighted to be able to present the trophy to the reception class. The whole school was enthusiastically taking part and enjoying the benefits.
Of course, what children eat at school is just one part of the picture.
Work has begun on a Food and Health Action Plan which should help make achieving a healthy balanced diet much easier for everyone, regardless of their income and background.
Together with the Food Standards Agency, my department is calling on the food industry to do more about salt, sugar and fat content. For instance, we would like to see manufacturers looking again at reducing salt in their products and making labels easier to understand. If consumers demand this, I am sure that they will take action.
The Food and Health Action Plan will recognise the personal role we all have in making choices with the knowledge that the way we live and eat can affect our health and the demands we place on the health service. We will also be continuing the work that has already started to promote sport and physical activity in schools, and broadening it to reach the population as a whole.
This supplement points to some of the excellent work that is being done by schools and others to promote good eating habits. I look forward to that work continuing to help today's children grow into healthy adults.
WHAT'S HAPPENING WHERE
42 schools in the North-west
Healthier breakfast clubs
42 schools in the West Midlands
20 schools in the North-east and 20 in the East Midlands
Dining room environment
10 schools in Yorkshire amp; the Humber
Healthier vending machines
10 schools in the East of England
Healthier tuck shops
200 schools in the South-west
Healthier lunch boxes
100 schools in the South-east
15 schools in London
FOOD IN SCHOOLS
The Food in Schools programme, announced in 2001, is a joint venture between the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills. It aims to bring together all food-related initiatives in schools to help them encourage children to eat well. The programme has strong links to the national 5 A DAY programme, which includes the school fruit scheme.
The results of the programme should be of particular value to schools as they work towards the healthy eating strand of the National Healthy Schools Standard. Through professional development, guidelines and curriculum materials, the DfES is encouraging primary and secondary schools to look at all aspects of food during the school day and to develop whole-school food policies. Schools are also encouraged to set up local food partnerships, where secondary food specialists train and support their primary colleagues, helping them to work towards the healthy schools standard.
Visit www.teachernet. gov.ukeducationoverview briefingcurrentstrategy The Department of Health's eight projects, running in nine regions throughout the year, follow children through the school day . The aim is to disseminate best practice through a whole-school approach , enabling teachers to develop in-house strategies to improve children's diet.
Visit nutrition.support @doh.gsi.gov.uk