Junk food banned from school dinners

Low-quality meat, fizzy drinks and chocolate will be off the menu at English schools from September under tough new guidelines announced today.

Pupils would be restricted to having deep-fried food, such as chips, twice a week, and would have at least two portions of fruit or fresh vegetables with every meal, education secretary Alan Johnson said.

In addition, they would be served high-quality meat, poultry or oily fish on a regular basis, and from September 2008, schools would have to make clear the nutritional and vitamin content of all the meals they provided.

“These new standards will start to undo decades of neglect and ensure that healthy eating is the norm in every school. The health of our young people is not an area for compromise,” Mr Johnson said this morning.

“Providing pupils with a healthy balanced meal that will give them the energy, vitamins and minerals they need to learn and play is essential, but we will go further, helping schools to teach every pupil skills in diet, nutrition, practical food preparation and cooking to ensure they make the right choices throughout life.”

The changes are based on the recommendations of the school meals review panel, which was set up last year after a high-profile campaign by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver laid bare the unhealthy and often shocking state of England’s school dinners.

Mr Johnson has today pledged £220 million to help schools and local authorities invest in better school meals, training for cooks and kitchen equipment, with £60 million of this already spent and the rest due to be paid out over the next two years.

The move has been widely welcomed, but there are questions as to whether this money is enough to pay for the fresh ingredients and staff training needed to implement the strict new guidelines, and indeed whether any of it is new investment at all.

Last March, then education secretary Ruth Kelly announced a similar level of funding to improve school meals, with a new minimum spend of 50p per child per day for primary pupils and 60p in secondary schools.

New research by the Soil Association finds spending on primary school meals has increased from 47p in 2005 to 51p this year – but says this is still far short of 70p it believes is necessary “if reasonable nutritional standards are to be met”.

The government has argued that the money will come on top of capital spending of £5.5 billion, much of which was going on the refurbishment of school kitchens.

Meanwhile, Christina McAnea, head of education services at Unison, welcomed today’s announcement, but raised questions about the pressure it would put on school cooks – many of whom are not trained to make the nutritional food required.

“It will take more than just money to turn this around. We need to have a properly planned workforce that has access to training and follows a minimum set of national standards,” she said.