A recipe for gimmickry and political spin

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The Independent Online

All of a sudden, we learn that Tony Blair is terribly concerned about the quality of school dinners. No one would deny this is an important subject and worthy of prime ministerial attention. But the Government's proposals, which were rushed out yesterday, are pure New Labour gimmickry. A so-called School Meals Trust will be set up to "help" head teachers, parents and school governors raise standards in school catering. The Government's prescription for the problem is simple: more bureaucracy.

All of a sudden, we learn that Tony Blair is terribly concerned about the quality of school dinners. No one would deny this is an important subject and worthy of prime ministerial attention. But the Government's proposals, which were rushed out yesterday, are pure New Labour gimmickry. A so-called School Meals Trust will be set up to "help" head teachers, parents and school governors raise standards in school catering. The Government's prescription for the problem is simple: more bureaucracy.

There has clearly been an alarming slide in the quality of school dinners over the past decade. All too often, children are being served unhealthy, high-fat foods rather than balanced meals. Various factors are responsible for this malign trend: marketing by food companies, cost considerations by schools, sheer convenience. And the declining quality of school meals has mirrored the increasingly unhealthy state of the nation's diet.

But this is no excuse. Schools have a responsibility to provide healthy meals - no matter what is going on in the rest of society. For many disadvantaged children, a school lunch is their only chance to eat a decent meal. To serve up junk also misses an important opportunity. Over the past 20 years, obesity has doubled among children. Health professionals have stressed the link between bad diets and poor health. School meals are an ideal way to help children acquire good eating habits. It is also worth noting that where children are given nutritious school meals, their concentration and academic performance often improves.

The Government's responsibility in this area is twofold. It should provide all schools and local councils with basic nutritional information, relevant to the preparation of school dinners. And it must ensure schools are sufficiently well funded to provide a healthy meal for every child. Given adequate resources, no school is likely to deliberately provide unhealthy meals. It is scandalous that, as the TV chef Jamie Oliver has pointed out, some are attempting to provide daily meals for just 37p per pupil.

The plan unveiled yesterday by Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, was a piece of crude electioneering designed to make it look as if the Government has devoted its full attention to the issue of unhealthy school dinners. The truth is, it has ignored this growing problem for years.

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