Two nutritionists have recommended the reintroduction of school milk and national guidelines on school dinners after discovering that junior school children from poor homes are up to 2.8ins smaller and 11.4lbs lighter than their better-off peers.
The Huddersfield University researchers, who analysed the diets of 201 eight to 11-year-old children from seven Kirklees primary schools, found that school meals were particularly high in fat, and criticised one school for serving chips too often.
They also criticised the only school with a tuck shop - which was also the one with the poorest children - for selling sugary soft drinks and crisps rather than fruit and sugar-free drinks.
Dr Clive Hunt, one of the researchers and a Huddersfield nutrition lecturer, is concerned that many hard-up schools are using tuck shops to raise money rather than promoting healthy food. Dr Hunt supervised the research in 1988-90 by PhD student Lynda Rigley, now a nutrition adviser for Manchester City Council.
The research report (as yet unpublished and on a subject which has been little researched in the past decade) claims that children from poorer areas, especially those at the poorest school in the sample, were deficient in nutrients compared with other children. The poorer children were also, on average, significantly shorter (1.5ins) and lighter (8lbs) than their peers, and these differences were even greater for the poorest school.
They also found that 22 per cent of the children in the whole sample were 8.8lbs or more overweight and 15 per cent 15.4lbs overweight.
They recommend the reintroduction of school milk - at least for poorer children - and of nutritional guidelines.
The schools provided information about free school meals, packed lunches, the social mix of the catchment area, the size of pupils' families and whether they included one or two parents.
The researchers found that the poorer children consumed less fruit and vegetables, more soft drinks and, significantly, less milk than their peers.