Kelly lays down food law
On a grey autumn morning in east London's Forest Gate, Hugh has sneaked into the newsagents for his first meal of the day: a packet of penny chews.
Just minutes earlier the 14-year-old pupil had dismissed dinners at his nearby secondary school as unhealthy and unappetising. "I don't eat lunch or breakfast," Hugh said. "I just eat lunch when I get home after school. I don't think the food in school is very healthy."
Several of his Year 10 friends agree, as they exit the newsagents clutching crisps, cans and chocolate.
Scenes like this illustrate a key stumbling block for the Government's drive to get children to opt for healthier school meals.
Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, has called for the removal of junk food from school canteens and vending machines, but is powerless to tell pupils what to buy elsewhere.
A study this year by the catering company Sodexho found that children spent an average of pound;1.01 on the way to school, and 74p on the way home, on crisps, canned drinks and confectionery. This adds up to more than the Pounds 1.63 average cost of a school lunch in England. It is also three times as much as children spent on snacks seven years ago.
This week the Government published plans to create healthier school lunches, which have been put together by an independent review panel made up of nutritionists and teachers.
Parents and schools have until December 31 to respond to the 160 pages of proposals.
The Department for Education and Skills will begin a national audit next week to find out how much is spent on school dinners and which authorities - there are at least 20 - no longer have facilities to produce hot meals.
Schools will have to meet a set of basic standards for healthy lunches from September 2006. These include that they provide no fewer than two portions of fruit and vegetables per child every day (see box, left). Guidance has also been provided on what types of snacks are allowed and which should be banned from canteens and vending machines (see box, below).
Even tougher basic standards will have to be introduced by primaries no later than 2008 and secondaries no later than 2009.
These will place minimum and maximum limits on the proportions of protein, fat, fibre and vitamins in an average lunch over five consecutive school days, including that the meals must contain no less than 40 per cent of a child's recommended daily intake of iron, zinc, calcium, folic acid, vitamin A and vitamin C.
Other proposals include:
* Schools increasing their take-up of lunches by 10 per cent over three years and achieving full take-up of free meals;
* Encouraging schools to buy local produce and cook meals on-site using fresh ingredients;
* Training catering staff to help pupils make healthier choices;
* The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority emphasising cooking skills in the secondary curriculum.
Parents who insist on making packed lunches should be referred to guidance from the Food Standards Agency.
The Government plans to spend pound;220 million to help schools implement the standards over three years and will review them in 2011. However, this falls far short of the pound;486m which the school meals review panel estimates the changes will cost.
Back at Forwood newsagents in Forest Gate, owner Pravin Patel said: "These kids are addicted to this kind of food and even if you have nutritious food in school they will still be coming in here once they leave school.
"Until they really understand what they are putting in their bodies, all these government plans will mean nothing."
Turning the Tables: Transforming School Food is at www.dfes.gov.ukconsultations
Basic lunch standards
Fruit and vegetables: Not less than two portions per day per child, at least one of which should be salad or vegetables, and at least one of which should be fruit.
Oily fish: On the school lunch menu at least once every three weeks.
Deep fried products: Meals should not contain more than two deep fried products in a single week.
Processed foods: Should not be reformed foods made from "meat slurry".
Bread (without spread): Available unrestricted throughout lunch.
Confectionery and savoury snacks: Not available through school lunches.
Salthighly salted condiments: Not available at lunch tables or at the service counter.
Drinks: The only drinks available should be water (still or fizzy), skimmed or semi-skimmed milk, pure fruit juices, yoghurt and milk drinks with less than 10 per cent added sugar, or combinations of these (such as smoothies).
Water: Easy access to free, fresh, chilled drinking water.