Oliver's plan fails as pupils snub healthy school meals

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The Independent Online

The canteens have been spruced up and the old favourites like pies and burgers retained on an occasional basis – but it will take much more to convince schoolchildren that the Government's new, healthy school meals are worth trying. More than 400,000 of them have ditched school meals altogether in the past two years, despite the best efforts of ministers and the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

Figures obtained by the Liberal Democrats revealed yesterday that the Government is almost a million children below its 2009 target for encouraging more youngsters to take up healthy school meals, introduced after Oliver's television show, Jamie's School Dinners, exposed their poor quality and found just 56p was being spent per meal on ingredients.

The Government is below its target by 511,000 in secondary schools and 473,000 in primary schools. Almost 250,000 fewer pupils took school meals in secondary schools in the year 2006-07 compared with two years previously – a decline of 17 per cent.

Oliver thought his exposé had done the trick when curbs were introduced on school meals in September 2006. Out went Turkey Twizzlers and burgers and chips, to be replaced by pasta, fresh veg and fish. Schools were also ordered to ban fizzy drinks, sweets and chocolate and serve fried food just twice a week. A £220m cash injection over three years was promised by the Government.

But the figures seem to show that the mothers of Rawmarsh Comprehensive School in Rotherham, south Yorkshire, who passed 60 portions of fish and chips, hamburgers and fizzy drinks for children through the railings in protest at the new menus last year, were speaking for children across Britain. Youngsters seem to be relying on cheap takeaways and snack food to get them through the day, instead. Almost two-thirds of secondary school pupils are shunning school meals, and around 60 per cent of primary school pupils.

The Liberal Democrats, whose schools spokesman, David Laws, obtained the data from a government parliamentary answer given during the August recess, seized on it, with Mr Laws insisting that the English school meals service was in meltdown. "School meal prices have been rising much too quickly, and it is a national disgrace that 3,500 schools nationally have no facilities to prepare school meals," he said.

The Government insisted that the effort to win children over was work-in-progress and that areas where awareness of healthy food was low had contributed to the dip. Kevin Brennan, the minister for Children and Families, said the School Food Trust – set up by the Government to introduce the new regime – was helping schools which are struggling with the new standards. "It will take time for the changes to be a success in all schools, but this is the right thing to do."

The Local Authority Caterers Association (Laca) annual conference heard in July that price is a major factor. In primary schools, the average cost of the food for a meal has gone up from 40p in 2004 to 60p, while in secondary schools it has risen from 56p to 74p. In part, the increase is a result of the higher costs of training and pay for canteen staff in the new regime.

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