Government under pressure to make healthy school dinners affordable

The government must ensure healthier school dinners are not prohibitively expensive if they are to benefit all pupils, the School Meals Review Panel has warned.

In its report on transforming school meals, published yesterday, the panel recommends that all schools adopt new standards on food by September 2006, and new standards on nutrients no later than September 2008 for primary schools and September 2009 for secondary schools.

They predict that the change, which will result in more hot meals cooked on site and made from fresh local ingredients, will cost schools an extra £485m over the next three years. However, the government has so far pledged only £220m for improving school meal ingredients and training school catering staff over that time.

The panel’s report urges the government to take note of their concerns that low income families who sit just above the threshold for free school meal entitlement may be adversely affected by resulting price increases for school meals, and to “investigate options for mitigating possible nutritional and economic risks”.

They also warn that school meal services in some areas could become unviable if price increases are beyond parents’ and carers’ budgets and uptake of school meals falls.

“School meals are an essential public service, no less important today than when they were introduced at the beginning of the last century,” said review panel chair Suzi Leather. “All school food should be good food. School meals should be an important source of nutrition for children, especially those from low income households.”

The panel’s recommendations also include an end to tuck shops and vending machines selling snacks high in sugar, salt and fat, and more lessons for pupils on practical cooking skills in the context of healthy eating.

Welcoming the report, education secretary Ruth Kelly said the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority was already looking at the role of food education in the curriculum as part of its Key Stage 3 review.

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