Fight for pound;10m oflost food income

4th June 2004 at 01:00
In a week in which pressure on schools intensified with MPs warning of an epidemic of obesity, headteachers' leaders struck back. They want compensation for lost revenue from vending machines. But help is at hand for busy primary teachers ...

Schools leading the fight against obesity must not be left out of pocket, headteachers warned ministers this week.

Vending machines, often carrying unhealthy snacks, earn more than pound;10million each year, according to figures from the Local Authority Caterers' Association.

Income from the machines can be up to pound;15,000 per annum for a large secondary, enough to employ a part-time teacher or full-time assistant.

Schools were keen to replace unhealthy products, said David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, but ministers had to agree to compensate them.

"It is totally unrealistic to expect schools to abandon pound;10m just like that. If schools move to selling healthy products and children buy less, the Government will have to offer financial support," he said. The pressure on schools intensified with the publication last week of the House of Commons Select Committee on Health report on the "epidemic" of child obesity.

Figures published this week by the Department of Health show only one in nine children aged five to 15 eats the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables each day.

The select committee report called for a ban on the sale of unhealthy food from vending machines and criticised the Government for supporting schemes providing books and sports equipment in return for crisp packets and chocolate wrappers.

Peter Hain, Leader of the House, caused a kerfuffle within government when, on Question Time, he described the Government's backing for a Cadbury's promotion as "pretty unacceptable".

But Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, said the Government's stance was "entirely defensible" because it benefited school sport facilities. "It is not so much that children are getting fatter because they are eating significantly more, they are getting fatter because they are taking much less exercise," she said.

Mrs Jowell's argument was echoed by food manufacturers concerned about the possibility of increased regulation and calls for a ban on marketing in schools.

Dr Tim Lobstein, chair of the Food Commission, said the Select Committee's call for a voluntary ban on television advertising to children did not go far enough.

"Voluntary bans will not work. The average child sees more than 5,000 advertisements for junk food every year. Parents and teachers cannot compete with the barrage of bad messages and corrupting influence," he said.

The Department of Health this week denied reports that John Reid, Health Secretary, backs such a ban, saying he would prefer voluntary action.

Around half of all advertisements during children's TV programmes are for food, compared to 21 per cent during the adult schedules. Almost all food advertisements on children's TV are for products high in fat, sugar or salt.

Research has found that two- thirds of six and seven-year-olds said they "trust all commercials". It is only by the age of eight that most children begin to look at them in a more sophisticated way.

Later this month, David Kidney, Labour MP for Stafford, will introduce a Ten-Minute Rule Bill which would require every school to have a nutrition policy regulating what can be sold in canteens and vending machines and what pupils should eat for lunch.

Stephen Twigg, education junior minister, welcomed the Bill. He said ministers would publish a health blueprint for schools later this year, after talks with the Office for Standards in Education.

Ministers are also considering the Select Committee's recommendation for compulsory nutrition and cookery classes.

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