The Government's decision to lay down nutritional guidelines for schools and to give local education authorities a statutory responsibility for meals provision comes as welcome news to Joe Harvey. The director of Stratford-upon-Avon health education trust has been waging a campaign against the increase of junk food in schools through the network of school nutition action groups (SNAGs) which he set up in Birmingham four years ago with Sandra Passmore.
The nutritional value of school meals has been in decline since local authorities put their meals services out to compulsory competitive tender. They have prided themselves on driving a hard bargain, while caterers have had to squeeze costs to win contracts. Schools have added to the misery by installing vending machines, often to raise money for school funds.Both forms of meals set a pattern which can lead in adulthood to obesity and heart disease.
"Almost all snack foods produced conventionally have a long shelf life, which means high fat, high sugar and high salt," said Joe Harvey.
School nutrition action groups want a whole-school approach to nutrition, bringing staff, caterers, pupils and local government health departments together in an effort to improve the quality of what is eaten and what is taught during food technology and science lessons.
"You have to have a link between the meals you're providing and what you're teaching about health and nutrition in the curriculum," said Joe Harvey.
The Government is leaving it to schools to decide how far they go towards promoting healthy eating. Joe Harvey believes that has been part of the problem. "The responsibility for nutrition in schools sits fairly and squarely with the headteacher and senior management. And it's a responsibility many heads have been very happy to duck."
Only about 30 per cent of schools have some sort of similar action group. Joe Harvey would like to see more. Through nutrition guidelines, a national advice line and a newsletter, groups have successfully put pressure on caterers at a local level to provide healthy options, pointing out through example that a good diet doesn't have to be expensive.
The action groups have been active in bringing catering companies, nutritionists and teachers together to influence what is taught and discussed in class. But the biggest contribution to a whole-school policy comes from the caterer.
Joe Harvey believes it is in everyone's interest to move away from the "lowest bid wins" mentality that has dominated competitive tendering. "I'd like to see a best value approach adopted," he said. "Any food service has to cover more than the cost of producing the meal. On the sort of margins they have been getting, contractors haven't been able to provide staff training, quality ingredients, renew equipment or upgrade facilities."
"Any menu spec has got to be sensitive to children's preferences but without selling their health down the river," he adds.
Examples of good practice are beginning to emerge. Chartwell, a catering firm, and Kent County Council are discussing a healthy options menu for schools and the Automatic Vending Association of Britain has produced a code of conduct based on action group guidelines for members who provide drinks and confectionery machines to schools.
Meanwhile, schools and local education authorities will have to face the issue of who pays for implementing the Government's tougher food standards. "The reality is that the private sector and local government are not going to subsidise healthy eating," Joe Harvey said.
A win-win situation could emerge if higher quality means greater sales. Many caterers are also starting to extend their service to include breakfasts and fresh sandwiches to satisfy pupils'cravings for snacks.