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Minister dishes up food thoughts

Education minister Cheryl Gillan passed her compliments to the chef after sitting down to lasagne, peas, sweetcorn and bread and butter with pupils at Argyle primary school near King's Cross, London. "Excellent," she said. "Much better than the school dinners I used to have as a child."

Mrs Gillan, launching new guidelines on healthy eating in schools, outlined the benefits of good food for youngsters. A balanced diet was good for their concentration and performance at school, their health and resistance to illness, she said, reviving all the arguments used against the Conservative government when it abolished compulsory nutritional standards for school meals in 1980.

The new guidelines have been produced by experts set up under the Health of the Nation initiative launched in 1992. They are aimed at everyone likely to be involved in providing school meals.

A series of illustrated booklets under the title Eating Well at School give advice on everything from reducing fat in the diet to food hygiene to how to construct a menu.

Health campaigners have welcomed the Government's apparent U-turn in setting out a basic nutrition policy. But they say the guidelines should be compulsory. Mrs Gillan says she sees no point in creating a new bureaucracy to oversee school meals. Persuasion is more effective, she says.

Professor Tim Lang, chairman of the School Meals Campaign and a member of the team which drew up the guidelines, says figures show the number of children taking school dinners has halved in the past 18 years to one in three. A handful of local authorities only provide meals for needy children.

"The guidelines are a step in the right direction, but they should be mandatory," he says. "Voluntary advice is severely limited because those who would benefit most from it are the least likely to take it.

"It's good news that the Government has finally come round to the view that abolishing basic nutritional standards hasn't worked. After the mess of the 1980s we need something stronger than this."

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