'We are not the food police'
TEACHING STAFF could end up "doing the job of parents" by enforcing children's healthy eating in Wales, it was feared this week.
The first proposed private members' measure in the Welsh Assembly under new powers brought forward by Liberal Democrat AM Jenny Randerson could make it a requirement that schools, via a duty on local authorities, provide one-third of a child's daily nutritional needs and ban unhealthy foods lacking in essential vitamins.
But concerns that the proposal contained in the measure Healthier School Meals will be impossible to police with school inspections, as well as overstretch school staff, were hurled back at the member for Cardiff Central during a debate in the Senedd last week, despite widespread agreement for the measure in principal.
Janet Ryder, Plaid Cymru's education spokesperson, asked: "I wonder if it will be putting too much responsibility on our schools and asking them to be parents?"
Her Tory counterpart, Alun Cairns, believed it could not be enforced. "Schools may also have questions about where the money is coming from for this," he said.
Ms Randerson believes that tackling childhood obesity should be a major aim of all schools, with the focus on the bigger picture of the nation's long-term health.
"We need to avoid the financial impact on the NHS with the rising tide of obesity," she told fellow members.
She also hopes the measure will avoid the experience of England and Scotland, where healthy-eating schemes have led to drops in school dinner uptake.
Similar moves in secondary schools in Wales made by some authorities, such as Carmarthenshire, have already seen dips in school dinner uptake as pupils head for the chip shop or take packed lunches.
Another healthy-eating plan in Denbighshire is currently under consultation, with plans to keep pupils in at lunchtime, with parental permission, to stop them eating unhealthily outside.
"For too long we have regarded it as normal for our children to be fed chips and burgers because they like it," she said. "Yet when I go to France I'm fascinated to see teenagers selecting healthy salads," Ms Randerson said last week at the Lib Dem conference in Brighton.
Welsh Lib Dem education spokesperson Kirsty Williams said: "This doesn't absolve parents of responsibility. But the state has a role in putting nourishing food in front of our children."
But during the Senedd debate, Caerphilly AM Jeff Cuthbert said innovative healthy-eating schemes were already up and running in his constituency. He cited St Helen's Catholic Primary School where children grow their own organic fruit and vegetables on allotments.
Consultation responses from the Assembly government's 2006 healthy-eating policy paper, Appetite for Life, reveal that only 23 per cent of young people questioned agreed that sweets, chocolates and crisps should be banned from schools.
The ban will come in next September and schools are already being encouraged to make the move with the help of a new Welsh Local Government Association appointed food champion Teresa Fillipponi. But education unions have voiced concerns that the plans would take teachers away from their main job of teaching.
Education minister Jane Hutt agreed the proposed measure in principle, giving Ms Randerson time to develop and cost it before it was fully drafted and consulted on. She said it would complement the AFL guidance on healthy eating.
"We share the aims of a long-term, sustainable service delivering healthy school meals with an increase in take-up. To change the eating habits of our children and young people will take time and commitment; we need to take stakeholders with us through persuasion and partnership working."
More than 200 12 and 13-year-olds from three schools in Carmarthenshire are having their fitness levels tested to assess risk of heart disease later in life, it was revealed this week. The tests are part of a study by Swansea University School of Medicine and the University of Wales Institute in Cardiff.