Put all types of food on the menu

1st February 2008 at 00:00
Schools in Wales are currently inundated with health initiatives - healthy eating, healthy lifestyles, fitness and sporting activities. There is a creeping social dimension to the school curriculum which suggests that all of society's problems can be cured by quick fixes or longer-term strategies placed on already hard-pressed heads and their staff.

The sheer number of health initiatives (not to mention all the other schemes) directed at schools from central government departments, local authorities and various sporting organisations may well undermine what should be an important aspect of educational development.

It is clear from the feedback I receive from heads across Wales that these various bodies are not working together effectively. Neither are departments within these bodies talking to each other to co-ordinate an agenda which is manageable in all schools and effective in the long term.

Food is a really high-profile issue at present on the health agenda. We have had the celebrity chef and other gurus telling us to make radical alterations to the meals we provide for children to ensure that they eat healthily. One local authority in Wales recently reported losses of hundreds of thousands of pounds because the wholesale changes to their menu patterns have resulted in the "Jamie Oliver effect".

Science was never my strongest subject, but I seem to remember Isaac Newton's third law of motion: "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction."

Pupils simply won't buy meals if they don't like them. We have also had mini parent revolts, with chips being handed through railings to pupils at lunchtimes.

Anyone with half a brain could have predicted this reaction. If changes are to be made, they must be done in a gradual and systematic way that educates young people and changes their eating habits.

In my own school, we ran our own meals service. We sourced all fresh food locally and moved slowly - over a few years - to a much more balanced menu pattern that included most of the so-called "healthy" foods, but did not ignore the occasional popular item.

As a result, more than 66 per cent of pupils at the school regularly take a school meal. The meals are healthy and popular with children and parents - and they cost less than the local authority equivalent.

The pressures on young people to conform to the images they see in the media are enormous. I have recently been made aware by two friends that their respective teenage daughters have eating disorders for which they have had to seek support. The girls say they are trying to eat healthily. But are they?

Most of the food we buy is not in itself unhealthy, but we can be made to feel guilty if we buy certain items. I love takeaway meals, burgers, chips, a pint of beer and a glass of red wine. But I eat and drink these items in moderation and take regular exercise, so they don't cause me a problem.

What we should be emphasising is not healthy eating but sensible eating - a balanced diet. As my mum used to say: "A little of what you fancy does you good."

The largest sportswear retailer in the world has the slogan "Just do it". I think our focus is wrong. Maybe what we should be saying to our youngsters is: "Just eat it - but don't eat it too often."

Much more meaningful, don't you think?

Gareth Jones is a retired head from Flintshire, where he is branch secretary of the National Association of Head Teacher Cymru.

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