Caterers have shown widespread support for calls to reintroduce cookery lessons in schools after a damning Government report finally called for a combined approach to the growing problem of obesity.
Schools remained on the front line, however, with the Health Select Committee report pointing out a number of recommendations, including an Ofsted inspection into the current food technology curriculum.
Food service professionals said they supported the move but were not willing to shoulder the blame for the country's obesity problem.
Roger Denton, head of catering for the London borough of Sutton, admitted school caterers were part of the problem but said the epidemic wasn't just being fuelled by the 190 days a year a child is at school.
A spokeswoman for the Local Authority Caterers Association agreed that school meals represented only a small part of a child's diet and what they ate in school was largely dictated by their eating habits at home.
Carl Morris, marketing director for education at contract caterer Sodexho, said changes to lunch hours were also part of the problem. He said over the past 18 months lunch times had dramatically decreased to just 45 minutes.
"We have children coming out of lessons into crowded dining halls, queuing for meals and by the time they've eaten there's no time for exercise to burn it off," he said.
Despite support for healthier options, caterers said banning bad foods outright wouldn't work.
Tony Sanders, director of education for Scolarest, said: "To ensure children eat a healthy school meal you still have to have choice. When we have tried taking off products the volumes have gone down or out of the school gates and then we don't have the opportunity to educate them."
- Reduce the promotion and availability of unhealthy foods in schools, particularly from vending machines.
- Revise the food technology curriculum so children get practical training.
- Introduce training on choosing and preparing healthy food.
- Teach lessons in labelling and distinguishing advertising from fact.
- Develop nutrition policies.
- Introduce nutrient-based standards for school breakfasts.
- Introduce new standards for school lunches, as in Scotland.
Vox Pop: food education for kids
Roger Denton, head of catering for the London borough of Sutton: "Learning to cook from basic ingredients is essential because it's been out of schools so long that even parents need it now."
Stephen Twigg, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills:
"We must provide a balance and choice in what's available in schools. There are good examples of schools that provide a healthy range, even with limited resources. The school curriculum is just as important as the meals the school provides."
Barry Sheerman, Labour MP for Huddersfield: "The relationship between education and health is vital. It's not just about what kids eat at lunchtime, but about where education sits in terms of teaching kids about the relationship between what they eat, how they exercise and their future prosperity."
Sian Blunos, former chef and author of Cooking for Coco: "As parents we have a responsibility for what we give our children, but not every parent knows about nutrition. Education is vital."
Source: Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine, 3 June 2004