Crunch time for 'cafe culture'

24th August 2007 at 01:00
New nutrition tsar guns for grab-and-go school lunches, while a Carmarthenshire expert urges councils to go organic

MOVES TOWARDS healthier eating in secondary schools could prove costly as the traditional school dining hall makes a comeback, a local authority school dinner expert warned this week.

Elin Cullen, head of resources management in Carmarthenshire, said making dining facilities fit for purpose and overhauling the current "cafe culture" in secondaries was a requirement of the Assembly government's Appetite for Life strategy, released last year.

"Making sure dinner queues are cut and the facilities are right for a sit-down meal is all-important to the objectives of healthier eating in Appetite for Life. But this will come with added cost," she said.

Ms Cullen's comments came as Teresa Filipponi, the nation's newly appointed healthy eating champion, announced plans for more locally sourced food to be served in schools.

From September, Ms Filipponi, hired by the Welsh Local Government Association as food in schools co-ordinator, will oversee the delivery of 41 obesity tackling recommendations from the Appetite for Life report.

One of her first jobs will be to implement a national communication strategy with schools, followed up by recommended action and agreed timescales.

"My role will be to provide practical support to local authorities, caterers and schools on implementing the recommendations in Appetite for Life," she said.

Under the requirements of the report, primary pupils will only be allowed to snack on fruit, and e-number-laced drinks will be banned. Grab-and-go lunches, often from vending machines, will be replaced with healthy sit-down meals sourced from local suppliers.

Initial reactions to the report by some education unions in Wales were muted, with concern that the healthy eating plans would be difficult to enforce and would place extra pressure on schools already struggling with tight budgets. But in some areas, such as Carmarthenshire, moves towards healthy eating are already well under way.

Professor Kevin Morgan, from Cardiff University, along with Dr Nic Lampkin, director of the Organic Centre Wales, have already spoken out against the lack of organically grown produce in schools in a short bulletin to be screened at the Local Government Association's rural conference in Torquay next month.

And Ms Cullen is urging local authorities to help create enough demand to "price down" local organic suppliers, with the intention of making the produce affordable for the county's school dinner budget of just 54p per pupil.

Ms Cullen believes that Carmarthenshire stole a march on Jamie Oliver by introducing healthy eating schemes three years ago, before the TV chef's well publicised attack on the dishing up of Turkey Twizzlers and chips in Britain's schools.

Two years ago, primary pupils were stripped of choice, which meant that better quality food could be served up, chips were only on the menu once every four weeks and processed food was banned. It was a move that saw take-up of school dinners plunge from 63 to just 54 per cent. But since then it has risen back to 63, leading the council to claim their healthy eating message was "getting through".

Ms Cullen said the focus had now turned to ridding primaries of sweets and the rising demand from pupils and parents for organic food, as revealed in a survey of school councils at the end of last term.

"We are discussing the costs with our supplier and carrying out negotiations to see if introducing organic fruit and veg is feasible," she said. "Such produce is much more expensive, but we could look at collaborating with other authorities to bring prices down.

"Organic is perceived by both children and parents as being best and that is what's important."

Carmarthenshire spends pound;7.9 million on its school dinner service, of which pound;3.9m is clawed back on dinner sales.

Since the healthy eating regime was introduced in primaries, Ms Cullen says headteachers in the county have reported improved behaviour especially after lunch.

She said the message was sometimes harder to get across to secondary heads and their pupils. Uptake of school dinners in the county is down as a result of changes to the menu restricting choice. But Ms Cullen hopes to see these numbers rally.

An Assembly government spokesperson said an action plan would be developed in the autumn, along with conferences to help schools adapt to healthier eating. "Conferences are set for November 22 and December 6," he said, "and the focus will be on sharing experiences to help support schools and caterers in improving nutritional standards in Wales's schools."

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