The return of a national school milk scheme and full school meals service would improve the health of the nation's three million poor children and halt the increase in tuberculosis and rickets, according to a report published this week by a parents' pressure group.
TB, says the report, is "rife" in areas such as London and the West Midlands, while rickets - caused by insufficient calcium and vitamin D - is returning. Moreover in many inner cities 40 per cent of Asian, 30 per cent of Afro-Caribbean, and 20 per cent of Caucasian children have a nutrition-related iron deficiency.
It also claims that the bone disease, osteoporosis, is costing the national health service Pounds 750 million a year, adding: "There is already a ticking time-bomb of three generations that did not have the skeletal protection of free school milk."
The 100-page report - based on information from 70 local authorities, 348 MPs, 39 health authorities and medical professionals - has been published by the School Milk Campaign, a pressure group of Staffordshire parents that wants the return of a national school milk scheme.
Milk subsidised by the European Union is available free to nursery school pupils and at a reduced price to primary pupils - but only if individual schools and local authorities choose to apply for it. The subsidy was withdrawn for secondary pupils and catering milk in the 1995 Budget.
The report shows that many schools do not participate in the subsidised milk scheme because of the administration and supervision it requires.
The School Milk Campaign is highly critical of heads, governors and education authorities for "buck-passing on a grand scale". The report states: "Although primary school milk subsidy is available, hardly any children can access the milk."
The main recommendations of the report are: * a national school milk scheme for Britain similar to the scheme in the Netherlands where all primary and secondary children can buy subsidised whole, semi-skimmed or chocolate milk from school fridges; * the privatisation of school milk distribution, with all schools obliged to sell it; * the reinstatement of the secondary school milk subsidy.
The pressure group also wants mandatory nutritional standards for school meals, arguing that many schools are providing refreshments rather than a substantial lunch-time meal. The report also presses for free breakfasts for the thousands of deprived children who come to school on an empty stomach and says that those receiving free school meals are suffering from the poor nutritional value of many school lunches.
The report says: "The queues for a luncheon meat sandwich have resulted in shame and degradation to income support children and distress to participating staff. The catering opt-out should be abolished. The very least provision for a deprived child should be a two-course meal containing balanced nutrition with emphasis upon protein and vitamin content.
"All schools should have school meals available for all children who wish to participate at a reasonable and heavily subsidised price. A price range for school meals which varies between Pounds 4 a week and Pounds 7.50 a week seems greatly in need of standardisation."
It adds: "We would gladly donate a luncheon meat sandwich, a dry biscuit, a bruised apple and a carton of coloured water to Mr Peter Lilley and the rest of the cabinet and ask them to eat the same once a week for 36 weeks for their lunch - after all, this is what government cuts in EU school milk subsidy have reduced a free school dinner to in many schools for thousands of deprived children."
The report, which contains a foreword by the TV personality and agony aunt Claire Rayner, frequently attacks the Government and is written in colourful, emotive language.
One chapter details a survey among "hostile" primary school headteachers which shows that out of 32 schools that replied, only six sold milk, 28 said they did not know about their county's scheme, 13 were not in favour of any milk service in school, seven were in favour with reservations and 12, including the six with milk on sale, were totally in favour. Manchester and Scottish authorities were among the best providers of school milk and school meals and Bromley was one of the worst.
Headteachers' main objections to selling milk were administration, money collection and supervision. But the report says the benefit to children should be considered rather than the convenience of staff.
A survey of MPs indicated widespread political support for EU-subsidised milk in primary and secondary schools.
Of the 348 MPs (154 Labour, 112 Liberal Democrat, 39 others and 43 Conservative) who replied to the pressure group's questionnaire, 94 per cent of Labour MPs, 97.3 per cent Liberal Democrats, 20 per cent (seven votes) of Tories and 95 per cent from other parties said they were in favour of EU-subsidised milk being sold in all schools.
The Hunger Within: a report into children, poverty and nutrition , Pounds 3.50 plus SAE from The School Milk Campaign, PO Box 412, Stafford ST17 9TF