Investment is a key ingredient

21st October 2005 at 01:00
Lunch is literally a hop, skip and a jump away at Collydean Primary in Glenrothes, Fife. Pupils have been given pedometers and challenged to clock up 10,000 steps a week as well as make healthy food choices in return for the chance to win new playground equipment.

The Food for Fuel initiative, which will be extented to most Fife primary schools following the October holidays, is one of several schemes which have helped the council to buck the national downward trend on uptake of school meals.

Money has been invested in new kitchens and dining room equipment, from crockery and trays to music and television screens, to encourage children into canteens. At one school where food had previously been made elsewhere, uptake of school meals rose by 70 per cent when kitchens were installed.

What children eat at school is a key factor in their current and future health, which is why the Scottish Executive set up an expert panel almost four years ago to revitalise school meals. It resulted in new nutritional standards and funding to ensure healthier food, better dining facilities, free fruit for all children in the first two years of primary school and free chilled drinking water.

Hungry For Success has now been rolled out in all Scottish primary and special educational needs schools but it has still to win over young stomachs. While ultimately life-changing, the new menus have met with some resistance from children whose taste buds have become too accustomed to high salt, high fat foods.

When councils across Scotland changed their primary school menus last year, many saw a fall in the number of pupils taking meals. Figures published by the Scottish Executive show 47 per cent of pupils currently eat a school lunch, a drop of 2 percentage points since the healthier options were introduced.

Ronnie Gourley, the healthy lifestyles co-ordinator at Renfrewshire Council, says: "There was a mixed response. Uptake went down in more schools than it went up in. I think the changes were quite sudden and quite big. We previously had a huge range of choice and we restricted that.

"We have listened to the comments of children, implemented tasting sessions and introduced further improvements to menus. We are not going to turn it around overnight, but there are signs it is working. More recently our figures have started to increase."

In Glasgow primary schools, around 63 per cent of pupils eat school lunches and they can all get a free breakfast if they want, too. In an effort to expand choice and encourage more children into the canteen, new menus include offerings such as humous salad wraps and tomato, pesto and mozzarella paninis. Catering staff have started making low-fat and even fat-free cakes for snacks and sell crisps and popcorn only with reduced salt and fat.

James Coleman, convener of Glasgow's community health and safety committee, says that positive signs are already being seen, with children even changing the eating habits of their parents.

Secondary schools face the biggest challenge in getting pupils to choose their meals over offerings from local shops. In some schools, reward systems and television screens are used to lure pupils.

"You need a wee bit of bribery to encourage children into the dining room,"

admits David Craig, the quality improvement officer in North Lanarkshire Council's education department.

Glasgow City Council has received awards for its innovative online reward scheme for secondary pupils. At the end of each term the points accumulated by choosing healthy dishes in the school canteen can be redeemed by the pupils for prizes ranging from book tokens and cinema tickets to an iPod and Xbox.

North Lanarkshire is about to introduce a similar scheme in its secondary schools, with points given even for simply eating in the dining room.

Prizes will include free passes to council leisure centres, music and sports shop vouchers, iPods and CD players.

All its high schools will also have plasma TV screens installed.

"We do not think children will turn up because people have told them it is better for them," says Mr Craig. "We have to do something to encourage more children in."

Judith Gillespie, of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, is impressed with the achievements schools have made since the Executive launched its assault on poor quality school meals.

"I am very impressed at what people have managed to achieve in a relatively short time," she says. "It is important the critics remember how bad things got."

Mrs Gillespie says children are capable of making good decisions about what they eat and she defends pupils who go out of school at lunchtime and buy their own food. "When my children went out for lunch, they were adventurous. They went into Chinese restaurants," she says. "It is wrong to assume just because kids are going out of school they are only eating chips."

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