Chewing over fruit and veg offer in schools

23rd January 2009 at 00:00
Assembly member backs EU healthy eating offer as national obesity scheme is launched

First there was free milk then free breakfasts. Now an Assembly member is campaigning for children to benefit from free fruit and vegetables during the school day.

The European Parliament has pledged more than Pounds 70 million, and the scheme is on offer to every member state from next year. But countries must match the money, meaning that the Assembly government would have to pay 25 to 50 per cent of the cost.

Joyce Watson, Labour member for Mid and West Wales, has urged Jane Hutt, the education minister, to consider the scheme.

Ms Watson plans to survey schools in her constituency. During a visit to Prendergast Community Primary in Pembrokeshire, she promoted the healthy-eating message to pupils. The school already has a fruit scheme, as do many others, but parents have to subsidise it every term. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds can lose out if payments are missed.

If introduced, the fruit and veg scheme could build on the Assembly's free school breakfast initiative, which has benefited about 40,000 pupils but has proved controversial.

Some teachers' unions and opposition parties criticised the cost of the scheme, saying it was unacceptable when schools are struggling to meet basic education needs.

Heads believe schools should not have to shoulder the responsibility for healthy eating - and it should be down to parents since children spend more time at home.

But in a week when a national scheme to tackle worrying levels of obesity was launched, schools could be placed under pressure to act.

According to the Wales Centre for National Health, the number of overweight and obese children has increased to 22 per cent of boys and 17 per cent of girls.

Research shows that eating fruit and vegetables reduces the risk of developing serious illnesses, including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

The government already recommends that all breaktime snacks in primary schools should be fruit. But there is still no compulsion on schools to ban sweets or vending machines selling unhealthy snacks.

Ms Watson said food for any fruit and veg scheme should be sourced locally: "I hope Wales can be part of this initiative. Sourcing these products locally will also benefit local producers and give the economy a boost."

Academics in Cardiff are assessing the nutritional value of food and drink in pilot local authorities in Wales, a trial which could lead to universal free meals in schools.

An Assembly government spokesperson said: "The lessons we learn from this project will be crucial in improving the health and wellbeing of young people across Wales and a review of this work will inform future decisions."

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