School dinners 'can damage your health'

Recipe for disaster: High-fat, high-sugar food inflicted on children is 'storing up a timebomb' of disease
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The Independent Online

School dinners are bad for your health, according to the National Heart Forum (NHF). Too many secondary schools are providing meals that are high in fat and sugar and are putting children at risk of developing heart disease.

While children in the past grumbled about cannonball peas or wallpaper- paste mashed potatoes, today's children have an "appalling diet, high in consumption of the three C's: crisps, chips and confectionery", according to the NHF, which works to reduce levels of coronary heart disease. It is today launching a computer programme, the School Meals Assessment Pack (SMAP) to monitor and calculate the nutritional value of school meals.

Children get a third of their energy from school meals, but despite government health strategies there has been no improvement in the diets of school children for 10 years. They typically eat food that is high in fat, high in sugar but low in fibre, calcium and iron. On average they eat chips at school three times a week.

The forum believes that the state of school meals, which are eaten by 45 per cent of children, has suffered because nutritional standards were abolished in 1980. This was exacerbated by the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering in 1988, which forced schools to put their catering service out to tender. In turn, this encouraged caterers to rely more on pre- prepared food and sugary snacks to cut costs.

SMAP consists of a user's guide for caterers in developing healthy menus and a teacher's pack for classroom use.

In pilot studies, SMAP found that 46 per cent of calories in school meals came from fat, compared with the Government recommended maximum of 35 per cent.

NHF chairman and leading cardiologist, Professor Desmond Julian, warned: "Coronary heart disease is the UK's single largest cause of premature death and the seeds of the disease are sown in childhood. It has been estimated that 30 per cent of deaths from the disease are due to an unhealthy diet. If we do not tackle this now, any progress this nation has made towards reducing our high rates of coronary heart disease will be reversed next century when the children of today become adults."

Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death in the UK, with over 170,000 deaths annually. Although rates of the disease in men aged 35 to 74 dropped 24 per cent between 1980 and 1990, other developed countries have seen the rate fall far faster.

Imogen Sharp, director of NHF, said the Government's"Health of the Nation" targets would not be met unless there was an improvement in the school meals service. While ideally national nutritional standards would be reintroduced, she said that in the world of the "contract culture", local education authorities should insist that specific nutritional guidelines be included in all school catering contracts. All school food, including school meals, vending machines, tuck shops and playground vans should be given an annual health audit. The Department for Education and Employment should ensure adequate financial support..

"Pupils and school governors need a system for assessing the health value of their school meals service and parents need to be sure they are paying for nutritious school meals," she said. "About 4 million school lunches are served everyday yet there is little in the way of quality assurance for the service."

A 1994 report by NHF found that the average teenager consumes four packets of crisps, six cans of fizzy drinks, seven bars of chocolate, three bags of chips and seven puddings each week while eating only one seventh of the recommended intake of fruit and vegetables.

The NHF said that an unhealthy diet can influence the development of dental disease, bowel disorders, nutritional anaemia and obesity. The number of obese children is estimated to have doubled between 1980 and 1990.

"The school meals service was developed at the beginning of this century to improve children's poor health," said Maggie Sanderson, of the British Dietetic Association. "The diseases may have changed but the question of diet-related ill health remains. Work on the diets of children in the next millennium has to begin now."

Healthy menu

Lamb & Mushroom Pie

Beef Curry & Brown Rice

Bean and Cauliflower Bake

Tomato & Cheese Pizza

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Jacket Potatoes


Mixed Salad

Grated Carrot

Tomato & Cucumber

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Baked Apples

Fruit Yoghurt

Crunchy Bars


Unhealthy menu

Battered Fish

Beefburger and Bap

Baked Sausages

Hot Dogs

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Creamed Potato

Potato Waffles

Baked Beans


Roast Potatoes

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Apple Crumble and Custard

Lemon Meringue

Chocolate Crispies