Pupils refuse Jamie's dinners

26th May 2006 at 01:00
The celebrity chef's campaign has provoked a backlash against school meals. William Stewart reports on the battle to persuade youngsters to consume healthy lunches.

Brains, lungs, rectum, stomach, feet, oesophagus, spinal cord, testicles, large intestine, small intestine, spleen and udder.

The above, reproduced in full from the new school food standards published by the Government last week, probably tells you all you need to know about the current state of school dinners.

It is a list of the offal that ministers have decided is necessary to ban from manufactured meat products served to pupils.

The standards effectively ban junk food from being sold in schools. Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, said: "Our kids can no longer be given the kind of rubbish that they have been given for decades."

A near doubling of child obesity in a decade - the latest estimate says one in four 11 to 15-year-olds are affected - makes the principle behind the food standards hard to oppose. But critics question if they will work in practice and how long it has taken ministers to act.

After all, one of the "decades of neglect" identified by Mr Johnson was under New Labour's watch. It has been suggested that the Government is merely reacting to the media pressure that came in the wake of Jamie Oliver's high-profile campaign to improve school dinners.

Tony Blair denied jumping on the TV chef's bandwagon when the current drive was launched in March 2005. The Government had been working on the issue for "quite a long time", the Prime Minister said.

Readers may be surprised to learn just how long. Labour was issuing press releases promising to sort out school meals months before it was elected in 1997. Nutritional standards were eventually introduced by Labour in 2001 but Mr Johnson's use of the term "rubbish" suggests that ministers, never mind Jamie Oliver, know they were not enough.

The new food standards for school lunches come into force in September (see box below). Nutrient standards specifying levels of energy, protein, carbohydrate, fat, saturated fat, fibre, sodium, vitamins A and C, folic acid, calcium iron and zinc will be introduced in primaries in September 2008 and secondaries and special schools a year later. Rules for school food other than lunches (see box) will prevent unhealthy food sneaking in through tuck shops and vending machines.

So problem solved then? Not necessarily. To begin with there are concerns about the funding.

The Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA), fears that with many councils spending between 45-48p a meal on ingredients, they will struggle to find the 60p that consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers have said is necessary to meet the new standards. The association, which represents the public and private-sector companies supplying 85 per cent of England's school dinners, calculates that the pound;220m the Government is investing over three years works out at an extra 12p a meal.

But Kevin McKay, its chairman, says that 4p of that 12p is not ring-fenced and goes into schools' general budgets, so that only 8p per meal is guaranteed.

And even that amount is unlikely to be dedicated to actual food as extra hours in the kitchen, staff training and new equipment also have to be paid for.

"Clearly there is a big gap," said Mr McKay. He expects one result will be a rise in the price charged for a school lunch from between pound;1.40 and pound;1.80 to pound;2 which could have a big impact on the second potential problem - pupil demand.

It is all very well ensuring that school dinners are nutritionally sound, but if pupils stop eating them it will make no difference to their health.

LACA figures show there has been a 12.5 per cent drop in the number of pupils eating school dinners since March 2005. The average take-up rate in English schools is now just 39 per cent.

Mr McKay believes they are being hit by two opposing trends. First, pupils and their parents are being put off by the horrors that Jamie Oliver uncovered in his TV programmes. Now they know what Turkey Twizzlers contain they do not want them. Perversely he believes that efforts to improve the situation are having the same effect with pupils voting with their feet as authorities and schools introduce healthier, but less popular, meals ahead of schedule.

Mr McKay expects this latter trend will continue, at least in the short term. The new guidelines will make it harder to offer pupils the canteen-style choice that has attracted them in the past.

Prue Leith, the chef, has argued this restriction in choice is the only way to get children to eat healthily. But while pupils can still opt out of school dinners it could be argued that the restriction does not really exist. Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, has warned that "gastronomic Puritanism" in schools will lead to children bringing in "lunchboxes full of contraband".

John Dunford, his Association of Schools and College Leaders counterpart, has made the same point, as have the pupils.

The English Secondary Students Association says that banning the sale of crisps, sweets and fizzy drinks in schools will be counter-productive and should be dropped.

Hamish McCallum, an ESSA executive member, said: "By banning junk food you are just turning it into even more of a forbidden pleasure." The 15-year-old pupil at Redruth school, Cornwall, said there would be nothing to prevent pupils buying unhealthy food from shops around the corner from their schools.

The ban was a short-term fix that skirted around the real issue which was educating pupils about healthy eating, he said.

And as the views of another ESSA executive member illustrate, many will simply resent being told what they can and cannot consume. "With older students you really ought to have a right to decide what you want to eat,"

said Hannah Couchman, a pupil at Wolverhampton girls' high. "I am 17 and if I want to eat three Mars bars then it should be up to me."

The third potential problem is that even though the new standards are national, their delivery will depend on the circumstances of individual schools and local authorities which provide the meals.

A Soil Association survey of 74 English authorities this month highlighted success stories such as Kensington and Chelsea in London which spends 65p on a meal but also found that some authorities were still spending as little as 41p.

Mr Dunford, who has attacked the extra funding as "paltry", and said that many schools were in long-term, complex contracts with catering companies which could be time-consuming and costly to renegotiate by the September 1 deadline.

There are some hopeful signs. The Soil Association's survey did reveal that the average spent on a primary meal had increased to 51p, from 47p in 2005.

Mr McKay also points out that if more children can be persuaded to take school dinners then the cost of providing them will drop.

But he warns: "We are relying on the consumers being educated to understand that what is being done is good for them and that is not going to happen overnight."

School lunch rules from September 2006

* At least two portions of fruit and veg per day, per child; one of which should be salad or vegetables and one fruit - fresh, tinned or a fruit salad. Fruit-based dessert must be available at least twice a week in primaries.

* A non-dairy source of protein - meat, fish, eggs, nuts, pulses and non-green beans - must be available daily. Red meat must be available at least twice a week in primaries and three times in secondaries. Fish must be on offer once a week in primaries and twice in secondaries. Oily fish must be available at least once every three weeks.

* Manufactured meat products must meet legal minimum meat content levels.

They must not be economy burgers or contain brains, lungs, rectum, stomach, feet, oesophagus, spinal cord, testicles, large intestine, small intestine, spleen or udder.

* A starchy food - bread, pasta, noodles, rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, millet, cornmeal - must be available daily.

* Fat or oil must not to be used to cook starchy food more than three days a week. Whenever starchy food is served, food cooked without oil or fat should also be available. Bread must be available daily.

* No more than two deep-fried items should be served per week.

* A dairy food must be available daily.

* All drinks except skimmed or semi-skimmed milk, pure fruit juices, yoghurt and milk drinks with less than 5 per cent added sugar, combinations of the above, low calorie hot chocolate, tea and coffee, are prohibited.

* No table salt.

* No confectionery, chocolate or savoury snacks, apart from nuts and seeds.

Other school food rules

To be introduced in September 2006, to become law in September 2007:

* No confectionery.

* No bagged savoury snacks. Nuts and seeds should be without added salt or sugar.

* A variety of fruit and vegetables should be available in all school food outlets.

* Pupils must have access to free, fresh drinking water at all times. This should be chilled.

* The only other drinks available will be skimmed or semi-skimmed milk, pure fruit juices, yoghurt and milk drinks with less than 5 per cent added sugar, combinations of the above, low calorie hot chocolate, tea and coffee.

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