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Last Updated: Friday, 12 October 2007, 23:14 GMT 00:14 UK
School dinners campaign heats up
By Mike Baker

Jamie Oliver serves up a healthy school lunch
Jamie Oliver promoted healthier eating in schools
This is a critical time in the battle over healthier school meals.

Next week the School Food Trust will launch a new campaign to try to reverse the decline in school meal take-up. They are under strong pressure from government to do so.

They badly need a breakthrough. Ever since Jamie Oliver brought the media spotlight to focus on the issue, embarrassing government into action over tougher food standards, school meals have got healthier but the number of children eating them has continued to fall.

The latest evidence comes from school inspectors. In a detailed survey of 27 schools, Ofsted found that 19 of them had seen a fall in the number of pupils taking school dinners.

This follows a much bigger survey by the School Food Trust, which found that take-up has fallen by one percentage point= in primary schools and five points at secondary level.
Schools must make an effort to market their meals and have a whole-school strategy to encourage healthy eating
So, despite all the progress, take-up is now down to around 42% of all pupils.

Clearly, as a national conference on the issue this week heard, there is limited value in having healthy school meals if you cannot get the children to eat them.

The need for healthier eating is as great as ever. According to one grass-roots campaigner, children are still turning up with scarily unhealthy packed lunches.

She cited the case of a boy whose packed lunch consisted of the previous day's McDonald's burger and a can of Red Bull. He was four years old.

So what has happened? Has the Jamie Oliver effect evaporated? Or, perversely, is it starting to be a millstone around the campaign's neck?

'Food police'

This is not to criticise the celebrity chef's achievements. He badgered the government, the media and parents into paying attention.

But it may be that his aggressive attack on unhealthy eating triggered an equally strong reaction.

The Rotherham mothers who passed junk food through the school fence, and others who say its better to feed children chips and burgers than to let them go hungry, may be reacting to what they perceive as the 'food police'.

There are others, those who have taken the healthy eating message on board, who now won't eat school meals at all but who have not found a healthy substitute.

So why is it proving so hard to persuade children and parents of the nutritional value of healthy school meals?
No head has been forced to resign because their school meals take-up has fallen
The Ofsted report contained some clear indications. It found that where uptake had increased it was because schools had consulted parents and pupils and offered more choice and a better eating environment.

In other words, schools must make an effort to market their meals and have a whole-school strategy to encourage healthy eating.

After all, there are still schools that allow ice-cream vans onto their premises at break-times. There are still head teachers who insist that pupils get though their lunches in 30 or 40 minutes. And there are still schools where meals are served on plastic plates or tin trays.

A bit of imagination is needed. Jeanette Orrey, school meals policy adviser for the Soil Association, talks about one primary school which introduced a waiter and waitress service run by pupils, along with table-cloths and proper crockery in the canteen.

And, as she explained, this innovation not only encouraged more children to take school meals, it also created a calmer atmosphere and less frenetic children.

As for the pupils who were taking the orders and waiting on tables, they had a real opportunity to develop their numeracy, literacy, communication and organisational skills.

'Administrative convenience'

Joe Harvey, Director of the Health Education Trust, believes some head teachers are part of the problem.

As he puts it, "too many heads are cutting the lunch hour savagely for their own administrative convenience".

The problem, of course, is that head teachers are under greater pressure from high-stakes targets to raise test and exam results than to improve the healthiness of their schools.

Failure to produce the right Sats or GCSE results could cost a head teacher their job. So far, no head has been forced to resign because their school meals take-up has fallen.

Not that it is fair to put all the blame on head teachers, who have many other initiatives to cope with.

School meals campaigners also blame the government for failing to provide the funds needed to produce healthy meals. As they point out, the moment the price of dinners goes up, take-up falls.

I know someone who runs a catering company offering meals to independent schools. Business has boomed since Jamie Oliver's intervention, as more schools want healthy meals. But he says he could not do it for the money that pupils pay in state schools.

And Joe Harvey - who was a member of the government's school meals advisory panel - has another criticism of government. He claims ministers have failed to follow through on the need to teach children cookery skills.

Campaigners downcast

He says that although the government accepted the need for children to learn practical cookery skills, cookery lessons are still no more than an 'entitlement'. That means that while cookery sessions must at least be offered in after-school clubs, there is no obligation to require all pupils to take them.

School meals campaigners seem a bit downcast at present. They know that another Jamie Oliver moment is unlikely to come along. The current focus on school meals will, sooner or later, give way to a different area of concern.

That is why so many of them are frustrated that, although the meals are now healthier, not enough is being done to get more children to eat them or to get pupils to learn the lifelong skill of cooking for themselves.

If you look closely at the new Public Service Agreements published by the Treasury alongside this week's Comprehensive Spending Review you will see that one of the top priorities is "improving the health and well being of children".

Indeed, one of the benchmarks for judging this target is a higher take-up of school meals.

The government has set the target - will it provide the means to make it possible?

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