Pupils to give food verdict

Does the junk go or stay at lunchtime? The children will decide, reports Nicola Porter

Children in Wales are to have their say on whether junk food should be banned from school dinners, vending machines and lunchboxes. This comes as English officials announce optional cookery lessons for all secondary pupils from September 2008.

New guidelines for over the border also say every school dinner should now contain at least two portions of fruit and vegetables.

But officials in Cardiff dispute claims that the healthy-eating revolution is lagging behind in Wales, and say more people are being consulted over dietary changes.

Jane Davidson, minister for education, lifelong learning and skills, said healthy-eating schemes were already bedded down in Wales, including free school breakfasts, access to water coolers and fruit tuck shops.

She also belittled the announcement of optional cookery classes, saying every pupil in Wales already had the chance to cook and learn about healthy dishes.

A new cookery bus will also be touring primary shcools this year, advising children of healthy recipes and allowing them to cook, she said. School cooks and other catering staff will also receive new training.

Far-reaching proposals included in the Assembly government's Appetite for Life report, published in June, will not come into force until September 2008. All school councils, now a statutory requirement in Wales, received a simplified version of the report's 41 recommendations this week as part of a wider consultation, due to end on October 31.

Included in the proposals is a complete ban on buying sweets, pop or crisps in schools. Even more radical is the suggestion that children's lunchboxes should be vetted for unhealthy contents.

Under the proposals, primary pupils would only be allowed to snack on fruit, and drinks laced with e-numbers would be banned. However, guidelines in England mean every pupil starting school this term will be restricted on the amount of deep-fried foods they consume. Oily fish, a source of Omega 3, should be served up once every three weeks.

An extra pound;240 million, up to 2011, has already been earmarked for subsidising healthy school dinners in England - around 30p per pupil. The Welsh proposals have been costed at pound;17-pound;38m over three years, subject to consultation and Assembly budget negotiations.

England stole the march on the healthy food revolution after a well-publicised campaign by TV chef Jamie Oliver, who homed in on Turkey Twizzlers as an example of poor food served up in schools. As a result, the Westminster government commissioned the school meal review panel to investigate food standards, one year before the food in schools working group was formed in Wales.

Ms Davidson said: "I am absolutely clear about our commitment to ban unhealthy food in schools in Wales. While there is no statutory commitment in England either, we encourage schools to introduce this ban now."

The number of obese or overweight children throughout the UK has risen to about 30 per cent in recent years. The Appetite for Life consultation report was released in June alongside a food and fitness implementation plan.

It provides young people with the opportunity to make their own decisions about eating well and staying fit. The Welsh network of healthy schools scheme will be extended to all local authority maintained schools by March 2010.

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