Page last updated at 12:41 GMT, Monday, 17 May 2010 13:41 UK

Regulations on healthy school meals branded 'draconian'

Chips being served in canteen
Chips can only be served in schools as part of a balanced meal

Strict healthy eating rules are leading to pupils shunning school lunches in favour of fast food, catering operators have claimed.

Fergus Chambers, of Cordia, which runs Glasgow's school canteens, said the regulations were "draconian".

Many pupils were now rejecting school dinners in favour of making a "100m dash" to chip shops, he claimed.

But nutrition experts argued caterers had to do more to make healthy food more attractive to pupils.

Mr Chambers said the rules meant items such as diet drinks, flavoured water and home baking were banned from school canteens.

But pupils could walk out of the gate and "buy anything they want", he added.

He told BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland programme: "There are draconian specifications in place.

"Everybody accepts we want to improve the diet of children and reduce obesity. The question is, is it the right way of going about it?"

Solutions could include keeping children in the playground at lunchtime or banning food vans from operating near schools, Mr Chambers said.

We have got a great gulf between the caterers whose job is to sell more meals and those of us who believe that children need to be provided with what is best for them
Professor Mike Lean
Glasgow University

But he added: "None of this is realistically going to happen and I believe the answer is to allow the school meals service to compete by providing food which is healthy, but which still has the flavour to entice kids to buy it."

The issue is being raised at a conference on Scottish diet, organised by Glasgow University's Faculty of Medicine department.

Mike Lean, professor of human nutrition at Glasgow University, said it was a "complete absurdity" for school meal providers to be arguing against nutritionally balanced meals.

"If caterers can't manage to make them attractive and exciting and interesting then they need to go back to school," he said.

"We have got a great gulf between the caterers whose job is to sell more meals and those of us who believe that children need to be provided with what is best for them."

Prof Lean agreed pupils often went to fast food shops at lunchtime instead of eating a healthy school meal.

But he added: "There are other countries, France for example and much of Scandinavia, where they are not given the choice of going out of school to eat something else.

"The caterers then actually have to produce something that is attractive to the kids and the odd thing is that they love it."

Uptake dropped

A spokeswoman for the Scottish government said it was up to local authorities to decide if pupils could leave school grounds during lunchtime.

"However, we know some councils have taken steps to prevent chip vans from trading near schools during lunchtime and we would encourage other councils to make best use of the current rules and regulations in this area," she said.

She added the government was committed to encouraging young people to understand the difference a healthy lifestyle can make.

Figures show the number of secondary pupils in Scotland eating in school canteens fell to 39.2% last year, the lowest level for a decade.

Uptake of school meals in Glasgow fell to 38%, compared with 61% in 2006.

However, the number of primary pupils eating school meals has increased since the regulations were introduced.

The drive to improve food served in Scottish schools began in 2003 with the Hungry for Success initiative, launched under the previous administration.

Regulations designed to take fatty foods and sweets off the school dinner menu were introduced in primary schools in 2008 and in secondary schools last year.

Deep fried food is limited to once a week and chips can only be served as part of a balanced meal.

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