Children 'served cheap muck for school dinners'

Children are having to eat "muck" in school lunches that cost half as much as prison food, it is claimed today.

A new report from the Soil Association, published to mark "organic week", says many pupils are served "dematerialised fish, mechanically recovered meat and poor-quality produce containing pesticide residues".

The association calls on ministers to follow Scotland's example and give schools in England and Wales £200m to spend on organic produce and food from local farmers.

The report says diet-related illness is a bigger problem than smoking, costing the NHS more than £2bn a year, and that childhood obesity is rising at "epidemic rates". Good eating habits established in early childhood could reduce disease later in life, it adds.

The report says local authority caterers spend about 35p a day on each primary school meal. But where school meals are contracted out to private companies, caterers may spend as little as 31p. By contrast the Prison Service spends £1.74 a day on each prisoner's meals.

Parents are shunning the traditional school lunch and sending their children to school with packed lunches, says the report. Last month, a survey by the Food Standards Agency found that more than half of primary pupils now brought their lunch to school. Those children who ate school food, including poor pupils who qualify for free meals, were not getting the vitamins and minerals they needed, it claimed.

An analysis of primary school menus from last term showed "the same trends now dominating the supermarket and displacing fresh food from kitchens are eroding the quality of school meals. Regardless of the healthy eating messages promoted in the classroom, most menus are dominated by cheap processed and fast-food items packed with fat, salt or refined sugar, laden with artificial flavourings, colourings or preservatives and precariously low in essential nutrients."

The Soil Association wants more schools to join its Food for Life experiment, under which a small number have already begun using ingredients that are 30 per cent organic, 50 per cent locally sourced and 75 per cent unprocessed. The report also calls on primary schools to stop serving fizzy drinks and only offer pupils milk or water. They should also stop serving food containing monosodium glutamate or mechanically recovered meat, it says.

England and Wales should follow Scotland's lead, where the Executive is investing £63.5m over three years on improving school meals, it adds.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said the Government was committed to promoting healthy eating but it was up to schools and local education authorities how much was spent on school meals.

"From autumn this year we, in partnership with the Foods Standards Agency, will closely monitor the standards of meal provision in 80 secondary schools in England," she said.

Vivianne Buller, chairman of the Local Authority Caterers' Association, said she was in favour of serving more organic, locally produced food in schools but warned that it would cost parents more as organic ingredients were more expensive.

"The issue about reaching these targets is we would need to have a really radical change in the way we think about food in this country and our attitudes to it," she said. "Unless we as adults change, how can we force children to change?"

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