Page last updated at 22:59 GMT, Wednesday, 3 September 2008 23:59 UK

School meal guidelines tightened

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Sarah Campbell reports on the school meals revolution

School meals in England's primary schools are subject to even tighter guidelines from this month.

Caterers have drawn up new menus which conform to strict nutritional guidelines on the amounts of vitamins and minerals young children need.

But meal prices have risen 10 to 15% in the past year due to rising food and administration costs and fewer children are eating school lunches.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have controls but England's go further.

From next September, the nutritional standards will be brought in for England's secondary schools.

Food standards in England's schools have risen since 2005, but schools inspectorate Ofsted has reported a fall in take-up.

Guidelines announced in March 2005 limited the amount of processed meat, deep fried and high fat foods served and required schools to provide more fresh fruit and vegetables.

The changes followed a campaign by TV chef Jamie Oliver.

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To meet the new tighter guidelines, school caterers have brought in new computer programmes to help create balanced meals with the right proportions of vitamins and minerals such as zinc and iron.

Menus typically "turn red" if they do not meet requirements and information of what is missing flashes on screen.

The Local Authority Caterers Association said prices of school meals had risen in some areas.

It says the rises have been due to the combined effects of rising oil and food prices across the world and the cost of complying with the new guidelines in terms of computer software, staff needed to run the system, longer preparation time and greater use of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Head of the organisation, which represents 80% of school caterers, Neil Porter, said: "We are actually seeing increases across the UK. In England we have seen a 10 to 15% increase in the past year.

"Much of that is down to additional labour costs and increased food costs but what is compacting that further for this year, particularly in primary schools, is that we've seen the introduction of nutrient-based standards."

The organisation says caterers would not be "springing" rises on parents and schools.

The organisation says caterers would not be "springing" rises on parents and schools.

Where increases were being made this term, parents would have been informed before the summer holidays.

The bottom line is six out of 10 secondary pupils are still not eating school dinners
Ed Balls, Education Secretary

Prue Leith heads the School Food Trust, set up by the government in 2005 to improve standards in school meals.

She said: "This week we begin the final steps in radically changing school food. Over-fatty, salty, or sugary are gone , replaced by nutritious and delicious meals.

"This is an essential step in ensuring that all children, no matter what their background, can have a hot healthy meal. Parents of children starting school for the first time today can be assured that their child's school meal will nourish their brains and bodies and give them energy to succeed in all they do."

'A bit late'

England's Children, Schools and Families Secretary Ed Balls said: "School catering staff and teachers are doing some fantastic work. July's provisional take-up survey figures showed we are finally turning the corner - as all the experts accept, including Jamie Oliver.

"School catering is a really tough job and a culture change in schools and wider society of this size doesn't simply happen overnight. I understand schools' concerns about the time, effort and cost that introducing healthy lunches take.

"But the bottom line is six out of 10 secondary pupils are still not eating school dinners.

"Schools, parents, children and government to tackle obesity together and we make no apologies for introducing tough nutrient standards."

Liberal Democrat spokesman David Laws said: "It's a bit late for ministers to be urging headteachers to tackle the problem of school lunches when Labour's policies have triggered a collapse in secondary school take-up over the last three years.

"In addition, the huge increase in food prices is in danger of causing another downward turn, particularly in secondary schools where pupils have more choice."

In Scottish primaries this term, new rules include a ban on sweets and fizzy drinks and restrictions on fried foods.

Similar guidelines have been in place in Northern Ireland for a year and in Wales a number of local authorities are piloting their own healthy meals.


SEE ALSO
School meals 'good value'
04 Sep 08 |  Education
Schools told to end meals decline
02 Oct 07 |  Education
School meals 'must be made free'
26 Apr 05 |  Education
Primary 'free school meals' call
25 Jul 08 |  Education
Pupils shunning healthy canteens
07 Jul 08 |  Education
School-gate fast food ban urged
28 Mar 08 |  Health
Meals take-up rises in primaries
10 Jul 08 |  Education
'Snub' for healthy school meals
24 Jun 08 |  Scotland

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