Page last updated at 10:21 GMT, Monday, 7 July 2008 11:21 UK

Pupils shunning healthy canteens

School food
Jamie Oliver launched a high-profile campaign to improve school food

School meals might be becoming healthier, but there are warnings from nutritionists that too many pupils are still buying junk food in local shops.

A study in two secondary schools found that 41% of pupils did not ever use the school canteen - and only 6% chose the hot lunch option.

In contrast, 80% of pupils bought food from local shops.

The study of eating habits was carried out by the Nutrition Policy Unit of London Metropolitan University.

In the wake of the warnings by chef Jamie Oliver, there have been efforts to provide healthier food in school canteens in England.

Snacking

But researchers have found that many pupils are ignoring these nutritionally-balanced offerings and are preferring to spend their money in local corner shops and take-aways.

The study of two large comprehensive schools found that pupils were either buying food on the way to school or, where they were allowed, going out during lunchtime to buy snacks such as crisps, sweets, chocolates and chips.

This was not simply about children preferring junk food, say the researchers.

An important factor was a lack of convenience in eating in school canteens - which could be overcrowded, uncomfortable and likely to take up too much of pupils' free time, say the researchers.

The study found that local shops were more entrepreneurial about meeting this demand - offering cut-price child-size portions and getting in extra staff so that children could be served quickly.

But this meant that rather than eating the healthy options in the school canteen pupils were more likely to be eating the type of junk food, both hot and cold, which would have too much fat, sugar and salt.

A 1 portion of chicken and chips, of the type sold near to school, had more than half the fat intake for a child for a whole day. A single serving of a popular cold drink had more sugar than a teenage girls should have in an entire day.

"It certainly wasn't that they didn't like the Jamie Oliver menus or were rejecting healthy eating," said lead researcher, Sarah Sinclair.

"Our discussion groups with pupils and parents showed the main reason was that the canteen is too small to accommodate all the pupils it needs to, and long queues mean that pupils have no time left in their lunch break for any other activity such as sport or play."

Co-author, Jack Winkler, professor of nutrition policy at the university, said that local shops were "undercutting the school canteen".

"One takeaway we observed served 63 pupils with chips, burgers and sausages within half an hour."

The Children's Minister Kevin Brennan says that he wants more schools to stop pupils from leaving the school site during the day, so that they would be less likely to buy junk food from local shops.


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