Please, Mr Chancellor, why don't you . . .: School Meals: A free lunch now will save cash later

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The Independent Online
THE CHANCELLOR should announce that he intends to make school lunches free to all children. This would sweep away much bureaucratic nonsense - the collecting of pennies and pounds here and the issuing of free tokens there - and put a decent meal into the belly of every child. The move would be hugely popular with parents.

Costings made for the School Meals Campaign last year suggest that a take-up of about 75 per cent would add pounds 497m to the existing cost of school meals for England and Wales, so for Britain the figure would be about pounds 580m. This could be paid for by adding 10p to the cost of a packet of cigarettes - a true 'double whammy' for health. Even as his backbenchers were taking a deep and horrified breath and rehearsing their outrage - 'a removal of individual choice]' - he would then announce his justification and some neat provisos.

Despite some improvement, he would say, Britain still has some of the worst heart disease and food-related cancer rates in the world. Good school meals would help to reinforce demand for wholesome food when people are young, and thus act as an investment in the future. Drastic measures are needed to help the nation to meet the Health of the Nation 1992 White Paper target on dietary fat intake by the year 2000.

Ill-health is a drain on resources. The bill to the NHS for treating heart disease was pounds 917m in 1991. Invalidity benefit alone in 1990-91 cost the taxpayers pounds 425m for men and pounds 37.8m for women. But much of the financial and human cost borne by families and carers does not make it to the national accounts.

The cost to industry in lost production due to heart disease was about pounds 3.3bn in 1989-90, of which a third is directly attributable to diet. Making school meals free now will help slash those bills later.

And now the provisos. First, the public purse. One of the problems of national accounts is that they deal only in money. Quality of life indicators, such as prevention of ill health in 20 or 30 years' time, do not feature. Somehow we have to introduce longer-term planning. So this bold measure would be the first sign of a shift in national auditing - the merging of social indicators with financial indicators.

Second, the full cost of the meal would only be given to schools if they set up in-house training for staff and school food committees to monitor the meals, tuck shops and vending machines, and the lunches dovetailed with the classroom health education message.

Sir Ron Dearing, who is reviewing the national curriculum, has already proposed more 'flexibility'. This could be used to allow some hands-on cooking experience in schools. 'We don't want to make Britain into the first cooking-illiterate generation, do we?' the Chancellor should ask before moving on. Shares in firms of catering suppliers, cookery publishers and contract caterers would rise the following day.

Tim Lang Director of Parents for Safe Food and secretary of the School Meals Campaign.

(Photograph omitted)

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