Kelly pledges extra cash to improve school meals

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The Government promised that it would provide new money to improve the quality of school dinners as it fought back against criticism sparked by the chef, Jamie Oliver.

The Government promised that it would provide new money to improve the quality of school dinners as it fought back against criticism sparked by the chef, Jamie Oliver.

After suggesting at the weekend that extra cash would not be on offer, ministers changed course yesterday in an attempt to meet parents' demands for better school meals. More than 130,000 people have signed a petition after Oliver found that only 37p of the cost of dinners was spent on food in the London Borough of Greenwich.

Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, said she would announce more money in the next few weeks to build and rebuild school kitchens and dining areas. It will come from a £9.4bn injection for refurbishing and rebuilding primary schools promised in last week's Budget.

She also pledged to improve the quality of meals by funding a new School Meals Trust, that will help spread best practice.

But Ms Kelly ruled out extra money being transferred directly to schools for the food itself, saying it would conflict with the Government's policy that schools should decide their own budgets. She emphasised that parents, rather than the Government, should take primary responsibility for their children's diet.

At a Labour press conference, she admitted it was "difficult" to produce a high quality school meal for 37p. She stressed that many authorities spent more than that, citing the 45p spent in primary schools and 60p in secondary schools by south Gloucestershire.

The Education Secretary reiterated previous promises to bring in minimum standards on fat, sugar and salt content in September and tougher nutritional standards a year later.

Her aim was to avoid "cheap burgers and sausages" and ensure every child whose parents wanted it could enjoy a healthy, high quality hot lunch cooked on the premises using fresh ingredients rather than the sandwich lunches provided by some local authorities.

"That is a radical departure from where we are at the moment and it won't be done overnight. But, in the future, schools will have the equipment that they need," she said.

One option is for neighbouring schools to pool their resources, she said. The schools inspectorate, Ofsted, will report on the meals service.

Ms Kelly dismissed criticism that she was rushing out a populist pre-election policy in response to Oliver's TV series. The issue overshadowed Labour's launch of a mini-manifesto for children which was intended to switch the spotlight on to the party's pledge to eradicate child poverty by 2020.

The document says shopkeepers who sold cigarettes to under-16s would face fixed penalty fines and those who persistently flouted the law would be banned from selling them.

Tim Collins, the Shadow Education Secretary, said: "On school meals, what we need are genuine solutions, not more pre-election gimmicks."

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