Thomas Sutcliffe: You can give a child a plate of healthy food ...

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The Independent Online

When Jamie Oliver launched his campaign to improve the food we feed to our children, he memorably characterised what he wanted struck off school menus as "horrible scrotumburger fish-finger reconstituted mechanically-recovered sacks of old shit".

Some food producers felt this was a prejudicial description of their products but, by and large, when shown what went into the stuff, enough people agreed to shame the government into putting things right. Sadly, if the figures quoted by the Lib Dems' David Laws are right, many schoolchildren still pine for the delights of the scrotumburger.

As healthier menus have been put in place, the take-up of school meals has been falling, down by some 20 per cent in secondary schools (over two years ago) and by 10 per cent in primary schools. And in a vivid flourish of the old, non-consensual point-scoring politics, Mr Laws, the Lib Dems shadow for Children, Schools and Families, described this as revealing that the school dinner system was in "meltdown" and demanded that the education secretary must "act immediately to stop matters from getting even worse".

Which rather perversely turned out to mean that he should act immediately to stop things getting better – since nobody disputes that the new menus being introduced to schools are superior in nutritional quality to the old ones. The problem, apparently, is that childish palates can't keep up with the pace of change – and diners simply defect to the nearest chip-shop or bring in lunchboxes bulging with E-numbers and added fat. Sensibly Mr Laws said that "there's no point serving healthy meals if pupils aren't eating them". Less sensibly, he seemed to imply that it would be better to leave the food unhealthy for longer: "We need to slow down the introduction of the new standards."

Mr Laws would have been a good deal braver if he had remembered the Family element of his brief and aimed some of the criticism in another direction altogether, at parents who fund the defections and abdicate their own individual duties of care. Because while it is the responsibility of government to ensure that school food isn't actually going to induce long-term illness in children, it can hardly be expected to close pupils' jaws round the dish of the day and hold their nose until they swallow. They've started in the right place. Weaning children off the rubbish they've been taught to desire (by ill-informed parents and cynically knowing advertising) isn't beyond the reach of government – but it can't possibly succeed unless a decent healthy alternative is in place first.

That said, availability on its own isn't enough. In July of this year, a report on a scheme to give fresh fruit and vegetables to children between four and six reported almost complete failure in improving the diets of those children. Parents were apparently prepared to fill in the tick-box questionnaire recording the lamentable state of their children's diets, but not to reinforce the lessons they were learning at school by altering their own at home.

Two things have been shown to work well; a programme called Food Dudes, which attempts to improve the playground image of fruit and vegetables by means of cartoon super heroes, and teaching children to cook their own food, which is a powerful antidote to culinary conservatism. In both cases, a certain amount of adult insistence is indispensable. But telling the Government to slow down in its efforts is the last thing anyone should be doing.

Sorry to inject this note

I count myself lucky to have been at the Proms the other night when the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra played Beethoven's Ninth, under Mariss Jansons.

It was a terrific performance, but I couldn't help but wonder about the carbon footprint of the average orchestral tour. What with chorus, musicians and instruments, you'd have to plant a small Bavarian forest if you wanted to offset the emissions.

And while the boom in cheap flights must have been a godsend as far as the economics of touring go it can't have done anything to decrease the environmental impact. Though it seems almost blasphemous to say it, that exquisite quiet passage in the Adagio sits as heavily on the planet as a fleet of Chelsea tractors.

* The South Koreans insist that they did not pay for the release of 19 Christian Aid workers. Then again, given the cave-in they've admitted to, it hardly matters, since they acknowledge that they've agreed to pull their troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year and to stop missionaries from travelling to the country. Apparently the troops were due to come out anyway but their departure has now been successfully recast as a Taliban victory, and the deference to Taliban immigration policies will also count as a significant propaganda success. Added to which the Taliban may well have $20m to spend on explosive waistcoats. Thanks for your help, guys. You've undermined the Afghan government, greatly encouraged the enemy and made the kidnapping of other foreign nationals more likely. One hopes that the Taliban will show due gratitude and include a modest acknowledgement on their next ransom demand video: "Sponsored by the South Korean government".

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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