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Not so fast food

Welsh primary pupils have surprised their teachers by developing a taste for healthy lunches with plenty of greens and fruit. Anne Horner reports on the Funky project

If you asked children to design their own lunches you might expect them to ask for chips with everything. But when Pembrokeshire County Council invited pupils in four of its primaries to be their own Funky Food caterers, there were a few surprises. What was not a surprise was the need to do something about their diet. Research by the Food Standards Agency Wales has found that "heart disease is now Wales's biggest killer, and rates are substantially higher than in England and many other European countries". The agency pointed out the proven link between heart disease and a diet high in saturated fats. It added that 25 per cent of deaths caused by cancer - Wales's second most common cause of death - are attributable to poor diet.

In Pembrokeshire, 53 per cent of primary pupils have school dinners. All the rest take in a packed lunch from home. These pupils are the council's main concern.

John Davies, the county's cabinet member for children and young people, says: "Children were bringing lunch boxes to school that were full of convenience food. There was a real need for a healthy alternative."

Clearly, children had to be helped to choose healthy foods for themselves.

Lynne Perry, the county's health promotion officer, says: "The way to drive change is to involve children in taking decisions."

In 1999 the Welsh Assembly set up a network of "healthy schools" to teach pupils about the importance of diet and lifestyle. Today, 72 per cent of the county's schools have signed up. But as pupils learned about healthy lifestyles, a gap opened up between theory and practice. "The schools and the social environment were not supporting what was being taught," says Ms Perry. "At break times, pupils could buy salt or sugar-crammed snacks from vending machines. All too often lunch was chip-based."

In four primaries - Johnston, near Haverfordwest, Milford Haven junior, Ysgol Glan Cleddau in Haverfordwest, and Hubbertson in Hakin - pupils looked at how they could improve their diets through the county-run school meals service. Community dentists and a dietician visited the schools, and pupils from Years 5 and 6 presented the healthy food message in assemblies.

They asked classmates for ideas about what they would like to see on the school menu. A boy who requested lobster had to be let down gently, and told that this would not be possible in a lunch costing pound;1.40.

Meetings were held between Ms Perry, a dietician, a school cook and staff and pupil representatives from the four schools. And so the Funky Food project was born.

Pupil feedback showed that children didn't like their dinner and pudding served on the same plate, that there were too many chips and not enough choice. They wanted a cold menu - food they could pick up and eat quickly.

They said they wanted healthy fast food - McDonald's without the guilt.

But they didn't get all their own way. They asked for soup but were told there would be a spillage problem. They didn't want a lot of mayonnaise in their sandwiches. They wanted grated carrots, pasta salads, and green salads, and segments of fruit rather than whole pieces.

After a two-week trial of the new menus, the children were mostly pleased, although they did pick up on the excessive packaging. As a result, salad and fruit now come in dishes rather than plastic cases.

The Funky Food scheme has been a success - uptake of school meals in Pembrokeshire increased by 8 per cent in the first three months, and many children are embracing the healthy food message. At Johnston, crisps and sweets have been banned at morning break and the pupils now run a fruit shop. "To see 200 children eating fruit at break times - that's special," says deputy head Debra Davies. She calls her pupils "little initiators of change".

Lunchtime in the Johnston canteen sees a group of them tucking into their Funky Food meal bags of sausage and tomato torpedo, egg and cress hoggie, fruit, salad, blackcurrant drink and peach melba. Julianna Morgans, 10, who was a member of the Funky Food group, says: "I don't like lots of fat. I like to balance my diet." She now tries to eat more healthily at home too.

But not everyone is a convert. Near the group of healthy lunchers sits Alex Llewelyn, 10, who used to be in the Funky Food fold. "I used to think healthy food was nice," he says as he tucks into a packed lunch which appears to break all the rules.

Ms Perry is not downcast by this one lost sheep. "We found if children are given responsibility, they rise to the occasion," she says. "It is working well. It has given children a lot of confidence and self-esteem."

But there are some problems. The project aimed to cut the numbers bringing in packed lunches, but it seems to have lured some pupils away from having a hot meal. And cold lunches cost 20p more to produce than hot ones. The county council is considering whether the Funky Food option should be expanded to more primary schools and will make a decision early this year There is no quick fix. In 2002, the Food Standards Agency Wales surveyed 32 schools and concluded that "despite the improved availability of vegetables and fruit, pupils (particularly secondary pupils) have not yet begun to choose these healthier foods".

Perhaps it's time to reconsider the lobster option.

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