As figures show that take-up of school lunches is on the rise, experts say it's more important than ever to maintain the momentum and sustain quality. Neil Gerrard reports
The number of children eating school lunches in England every day has risen by almost 321,000, according to new figures.
The annual survey of school lunch take-up for the 2009-10 year, carried out by the School Food Trust and the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA), shows that take-up of healthy school lunches increased in both primary and secondary schools.
In primary schools, the proportion of children eating a school lunch rose from 39.3% in 2008-09 to 41.4% in 2009-10, a rise of 2.1 percentage points. Secondary schools saw a 0.8-point increase, from 35% in 2008-09 to 35.8% in 2009-10.
The news follows comments by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, attacking Jamie Oliver's school dinner campaign saying that "people did not want to be lectured" about healthier eating.
School Food Trust chair Rob Rees reinforces the point, saying that by highlighting the poor state of school canteen food, Jamie Oliver inadvertently caused the uptake to drop further.
"The number of children eating school meals had been on a downward spiral for many years when Jamie Oliver brought the issue into the nation's living room, leading to even more children and parents turning their backs on canteens," he says.
"Now, following the introduction of national standards for meals and the hard work to improve the dining room experience for children, this is being reversed - disproving the myth that children simply don't want to eat healthy food."
But he is disappointed that the number of children eating school meals is still in the minority. "The School Food Trust, schools, caterers, local authorities and cooks still have a huge amount to do before we can say the school meals revolution is complete," Rees adds.
Beverley Baker, chair of the local Authorities Catering Association, believes the increase in uptake is a real achievement for everyone involved in the provision of school food. But she, too, recognises that over half the population are still missing out.
"The figures show that although more children are having a school meal every day than last year, this is still less than half of the school population," she says. "In order to maintain take-up, or increase further the number of children and young people having a school meal, it is essential that we continue to give maximum support to the service so that we can sustain quality and ensure that prices remain affordable for parents."
Baker believes that particularly with the Governments focus on belt tightening, it's more important than ever for children and young people to have school meals.
"At a time when discretionary spending for parents is under pressure, school meals represent better value for money than a packed lunch when you consider the higher nutritional content and greater contribution they can make to children's diets and lifestyles as well as academic and physical achievement," she adds.
Last month Education Secretary Michael Gove said he was scrapping plans by Ed Balls, his predecessor, to extend free school meals from next term to 500,000 of the very lowest paid.
LE BLOG… RAYMOND BLANC DEFENDS JAMIE OLIVER'S CAMPAIGN
You have to wonder what the health secretary, Andrew Lansley, thought he was doing when he attacked Jamie Oliver school dinner campaign. Shot himself in the foot, I'd say. His remarks that "people did not want to be lectured" about healthier eating, that Jamie's efforts to reform school meals have flopped, and that he, Mr Lansley, was going to introduce "an evidence based approach", all show a talent for putting his foot in his mouth by opposing the first, most promising steps to improve our kids' diets and the quality of their future lives.
Mr Lansley will have done his own career no good, as he seems to have contradicted what his own, wiser boss said about Oliver in a Party Conference speech: "We need to understand that cultural change is worth any number of government initiatives," said David Cameron. "Who has done more to improve school food, Jamie Oliver, or the Department of Education? Put another way, we need more of Supernanny, less of the nanny state." Whomever Mr Lansley thought he was aiming his buckshot at, most of it really does seem to have peppered his own pedal extremity.
Let's look at Mr Lansley's claims. First: the lecture. Lansley wants to change the name of his department to the Department of Public Health. How much will it cost us to insert the single word "Public"? I'll wager it's at least enough to give every schoolchild a portion of fresh fruit or veg for a week or two.
Lecturing? Hectoring, more likely: the Health Department spends a king's ransom on advertising campaigns, and supports wretchedly expensive quangos such as the Health Protection Agency (£155.9m budget) and Healthcare Commission (£61.4m). Is Mr Lansley really prepared to argue that either of these nanny-statist bodies has had a hundredth of the influence of Jamie on schoolkids, their parents or the professionals responsible for school meals?
And Jamie's cost to the exchequer? Very little by comparison to the profligate mess of a department Mr Lansley has inherited from his predecessors. So why doesn't he just get on with cutting the fat from his own inessential projects (as we've been promised/threatened by the Government) and stop taking potshots at Jamie?
We'll take his second and third claims together - that Jamie's efforts have failed, which his "evidence based approach" will presumably demonstrate.
However, Mr Lansley, what are the questions for which you require evidence: Who ought to take the responsibility for dealing with the juvenile obesity epidemic? For the fact that so many children are not only dependent on fast food and junk food diets, but don't even know how to eat with a fork? For the fact that the least-advantaged children have the poorest diet?
The School Food Trust established in 2005, formerly chaired by Prue Leith, to monitor school catering has, thanks to the Chancellor George Osborne, just suffered a £1m cut - leaving it with only £7.5m in 2011. Yet this seems to be one of the few bodies able to supply the evidence Mr Lansley has requested.
And on 30 June their CEO said: "Following Jamie's School Dinners and the introduction of new standards in 2006, take-up has gone up over the past two years - reversing a 30-year decline."
Yes, indeed, we need an evidence-based approach. Yes, people need to take responsibility for their own health - but only up to a point, as the anti-smoking campaign shows. How is Mr Lansley going to take his (governmental) share of the responsibility for improving the diet of young people if he slags off the efforts of somebody who's really trying to do something about it? As Mr Cameron has said, what we need is a change in our food culture. Isn't that precisely what we chefs, including Jamie, try to achieve in our work every day, and what I have done for a long time?
RESPONSES TO LE BLOG
To be fair to Andrew Lansley, he did clarify his remarks about Jamie Oliver in a recent speech to the Faculty of Public Health conference. That is why, contrary to the media reporting, I applauded Jamie Oliver's initiative on school dinners and when he went to Rotherham - because Jamie "got it". He got that it's not just about a witch-hunt against saturated fats, salt and sugars. It's about creating a better understanding of, and relationship with, good food and diet. And even more, it's about self-confidence - it's about building self-esteem.
The new figures showing an increase in the proportion of schoolchildren eating school dinners are a vindication of the Jamie campaign and the nutritional standards brought in by the School Food Trust. Andrew Lansley's comments to the BMA were ill-informed and inaccurate. While the upturn in figures may seem modest, it is worth noting that in schools that made an effort the upturn was much more dramatic. Schools taking in part in the "Food for Life Partnership" programme saw a 16% increase in school meal uptake.
I've always been lucky enough to be in a household where food is prepared from basic ingredients. First by my mother, then myself. I was quite shocked by Jamie's School Dinners. How can children not even recognise basic vegetables?
I believe the Government could do a lot worse than give Jamie £50m with the goal of improving the nation's health. He'd do a lot better than the bureaucrats that are currently mismanaging that role.
|PERCENTAGE TAKE-UP OF SCHOOL LUNCHES|
|Primary and secondary schools||39.3||41.4||2.1|
|Secondary Schools, academies and city technology colleges||35||35.8||0.8|
SCHOOL MEALS MATTER
With the future of school meals finely poised, now is the time to show your support for our School Meals Matter campaign.
We already have thousands of signatories but, to make as big an impact as possible when we present it to the coalition Government at the end of this month, we want the entire industry behind us.
So if school meals matter to you, your business or your children sign our petition today.