Healthy school dinners still a turn-off for pupils

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The Independent Online

Schoolchildren are still turning their noses up at healthy school meals despite the efforts of the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and government ministers, who are set to miss their targets for school meals uptake, according to figures released today.

But there are signs that the youngest children may finally be changing their habits. The School Food Trust and the Local Authority Caterers Association found the number of primary schoolchildren eating school dinners had risen for the first time since healthier meals were introduced.

Uptake across English primary schools stands at 43.6 per cent – an increase of 2.3 percentage points on last year. But that is unlikely to be enough to ensure that the Government reaches its target of increasing uptake to 52.3 per cent by September 2009.

In secondary schools, uptake was down 0.5 percentage points this year to just 37 per cent. This followed a slump of five percentage points in 2007 and makes it highly unlikely that ministers will hit their target of 52.7 per cent.

Jamie Oliver welcomed the figures but called for cooking lessons to be made compulsory in schools. "Naturally I'm massively encouraged by today's news," he said. "I always said this would take 10 years to really see results but it looks like the corner has been turned, certainly in primary schools, in just three years and that's a fantastic achievement. A new generation of primary schoolchildren are now getting proper meals at school."

Prue Leith, chair of the School Food Trust, said it would take time to win teenagers over. "Teenagers are independent young people and changing entrenched eating habits does not happen overnight," she said. "This is not a quick fix. It is a long-term challenge that neither the School Food Trust nor caterers will shy away from."

Ever since Jamie Oliver embarrassed the Government into action by highlighting the dire state of school food, school meals have got healthier but the number of children eating them has continued to fall. The last time the number of children eating school meals rose was in 2004 – the year before Oliver began his campaign for better quality.

After the campaign won huge support, ministers banned junk food and introduced rules to make the meals healthier. They also announced targets for more children to eat school dinners.

Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, welcomed the figures but said a lot more had to be done. "Unhealthy eating is ingrained in society so this has to be a long-term project," he said. "You are not going to get young people in secondary schools out of the chippy and eating school lunches unless schools, parents and children are pulling in the right direction."

But David Laws, the Liberal Democrat children's spokesman, said the schools meals service was in meltdown and "not nearly" enough was being done to turn the service around.