Charles Clarke: Change our children's eating habits and we'll grow into a healthier nation

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Organic Week is an important reminder about the central role that food plays in our lives.

Organic Week is an important reminder about the central role that food plays in our lives. We know that good diet and nutrition can help reduce many health problems including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. So it is important that we eat healthily for our own good, but we should also take pleasure in preparing and eating fresh food.

Today, there are many complex reasons for our changing patterns of eating. Different methods of working, travel and leisure activities can sometimes lead to an increasingly unhealthy lifestyle for children that may continue into adolescence and adulthood. Poor diet, too much fat, salt and sugar, along with physical inactivity and other lifestyle factors, contribute to the growing incidence of obesity among both adults and children in the UK. We in government need to address this and ensure a healthier nation.

The Department of Health (DoH) will soon be publishing its White Paper on Improving Health, following substantial consultation. It will set out the Government's strategy for action to improve health, including promoting healthier eating and physical activity in schools. The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and the DoH recently announced an ambitious new target to halt the year-on-year rise in obesity among children under 11 by 2010. This is part of a broader strategy to tackle obesity in the population as a whole.

I am aware that schools have a vital role to play in making children and young people aware of the need for a healthy lifestyle. School should be an environment that encourages excellent health. Good health and effective learning go hand in hand, and habits started young are more likely to endure into adulthood. That is why I want to ensure that we take a whole school approach to food-related education.

We want all schools to be "Healthy Schools". This means bringing together all the elements of the school day to create an environment which supports a healthy lifestyle - giving children the knowledge and understanding they need to make informed choices; providing them with opportunities for growing and cooking food; and offering healthy food and drink options that reflect what is taught in the classroom. Schools can also provide a wide range of opportunities for physical activity, laying the foundations for an active adult lifestyle. Many schools are well ahead of the game with pupils benefiting from an integrated approach to health and wellbeing.

The National Healthy Schools programme has been instrumental in raising the profile of the value of a whole school approach to health and wellbeing. To support those schools with the work they are doing and to encourage others, we are about to launch our Healthy Living Blueprint.

This Blueprint has been developed in partnership with my colleagues in the Departments of health, sport and the environment, food and rural affairs together with the Food Standards Agency. Of course, a single document cannot capture the whole range of resources and sources of support available to schools. We are therefore creating a supporting Web portal which will provide much more information, enable us to flag up good practice as it evolves and to keep schools up to date with new developments.

There are a range of bodies that can help schools wishing to do work in this area. I greatly appreciate how the Soil Association has assisted schools that wish to introduce more fresh and organic produce into their school meals. The closer we can get to understanding how and where our food is grown, the more likely we'll understand the impact of food production on our health and the wider environment.

Many of The Soil Association's organic farms offering school visits and education resources are highlighted on the recently launched DfES Growing Schools website ( Growing Schools looks to harness the potential of the outdoors as a teaching and learning resource across all subjects in the National Curriculum. Its focus is to reconnect children with food, farming and the countryside, and to improve understanding about caring for the natural environment both locally and globally.

I fully support the important role Organic Week plays in educating the young about food. Learning how food is grown and produced can help young people make the right choices when it comes to diet and nutrition. The proper understanding of the role of food in society can lead to us all living healthier, happier and longer lives.

Charles Clarke is Secretary of State for Education and Skills