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School meals service holds key to future

09 November 2006

School meals are our only hope to save the nation, says Adam Starkey, managing director of education food supply specialist Green Gourmet

I worry that our national stupidity about food is approaching epidemic levels. When we were primitive hunter-gatherers, if something looked good and smelled good, it probably was good - in other words, nutritious.

These days we feed ourselves with stuff that looks, smells and tastes nice, but doesn't have the basic nutrition we need to keep us healthy. Worse - it's loaded with enough sugar, salt, oils and additives to slowly poison us. And because it's absurdly cheap and convenient, we can afford to eat it several times a day. Who needs to cook? Much better to watch someone else do it on television while we munch our way through another ready meal.

A banana, apple or raw carrot is greeted by many children with as much enthusiasm as they'd show for a dead mouse, because they've been conditioned since birth to eat food that's been processed, standardised, fried, adulterated, disguised and prepackaged. At home, the family meal has all but disappeared. At school, lunch is going the same way, because - disgracefully - most schools now allow children only a
30-minute lunch break, which barely gives them enough time to reach the head of the queue.

This breathtaking ignorance towards the food we rely on to nourish our minds and bodies has been getting worse for a generation. Small wonder that Britain is the fattest country in Europe; that 400,000 children are on drugs for hyperactivity; and that 40% of people admitted to hospital are clinically malnourished, even though many are overweight.

Who's going to save us? Not the Government or the education authorities, because it would mean interfering with choice. Not Jamie Oliver - he's setting us a wonderful example, but there's only one of him. Not schoolteachers, because they don't appreciate the problem any more than the average parent.

It's all down to those who run the school meals service. By getting children used to good food and good eating habits early, we have a chance of setting them on the road to a healthy diet for life. Once they've grown up, we've lost them.

We have the most important job in the world. It may be too late for our generation, but there is still hope - just - for the next.

Who's responsible for children's eating habits?

Colin Garnham-Edge, services manager food and catering, Oxfordshire County Council
"By the age of four or five, children's habits have already formed so it's important that parents introduce their kids to healthy food before that age to make them aware that it's not just crisps and biscuits out there. When they get to school there has to be an ‘all-pull-together' attitude."

Tim Cookson, chairman, The Litmus Partnership
"Over the past 20 years we've all lost the plot. Cheap, convenient and fast has been our mantra, and now we have to assume collective responsibility to improve our children's eating habits. We all take road safety seriously. Perhaps it's time to re-engage the Jolly Green Giant to educate tomorrow's children and start afresh."

Jackie Schneider, parent and school meals campaigner "The food industry has ruined food for kids by producing kids' yogurts and kids' cheeses which are frankly bollocks - in terms of nutrition - and are purely there to make money. It makes the job of parents difficult when these huge companies are selling this sort of food as cool and anti-authority."

Jennette Higgs, project director, Health Education Trust "I think we've now got to the stage where it's useless to point the finger of blame. We know that we've got a problem and now we all have to work together to do something about it. Each school and local authority has its own individual problems and everyone needs to sit around a table to look at them and work out solutions."

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