The drive to improve the quality of food in schools has taken another step forward with the publication of a report by the independent School Meals Review Panel.

The panel, which includes expert dieticians and nutritionists as well as catering professionals, headteachers, support staff and a school governor, makes 35 recommendations on developing and implementing nutritional standards which it believes will transform school lunches.

The report, Turning the Tables: Transforming School Food, will be open for consultation until December 31 but the education secretary, Ruth Kelly, has already welcomed its publication and given government support to some of its main recommendations.

Central to the proposals is the introduction of nutrient and food standards based on the Caroline Walker Trust guidelines, which are already in operation at schools in Scotland. The guidelines summarise the proportion of the daily recommended amounts of nutrients that children and young people should receive from a school lunch, and the amount of selected foods that should be provided. The panel wants the food standards to be applied to school lunches from September 2006, although it accepts that meeting the target nutrient specifications will take longer to achieve. It recommends that the standards be phased in over a period of time to allow the necessary preparation, with primary schools achieving the standards in full by September 2008 and secondary schools by September 2009.

The food standards include children being given at least two portions of fruit and vegetables every day, putting oily fish onto the menu regularly and restrictions on deep fried and processed foods. The nutrient standards specify the maximum percentages of the daily recommended intakes of sugars, fats and sodium that pupils should receive from a school lunch, along with the minimum proportions of protein, carbohydrate, fibre, vitamins and minerals.

A range of confectionery, pre-packaged savoury snacks and high-sugar or sweetened fizzy drinks is outlawed and a list of acceptable alternatives has been put forward. The report proposes that meeting the standards for these snack foods in school lunches should be a statutory requirement. It also suggests that such food has no place in other school food outlets – a point which Ruth Kelly picked up in her speech to the Labour Party conference when she promised that unhealthy snacks would be banned from school vending machines.

The report also recommends that pupils should have easy access to free, fresh, chilled drinking water throughout the school day. It argues that it is ‘time to reverse the regrettable move away from high quality standards of school food’ and the panel members conclude: ‘We believe our recommendations will lead to the consumption of healthier combinations of lunchtime foods by primary and secondary school children. This in turn will contribute towards a reduction in obesity and in the longer term reduce the chances of our young people suffering from various chronic diseases later in life.’

The panel also expects to see its proposals bring about educational improvements after hearing a succession of headteachers and others from schools where food had already been improved speak of associated improvements in behaviour, with calmer, better behaved children, more ready to learn. The report does point to a possible shortfall in funding for the new food regime. Its detailed costings put a price tag of £485m over three years on the implementation of its recommendations. This includes additional costs to parents as well as local authorities and schools, but it is still more than double the £220m committed by the government. The report falls short of asking the government to spend more money, but warns of the danger that steep price increases for parents could cause a decrease in uptake that might threaten the viability of school meals services in some areas.

The panel also calls on the government to ensure that PFI contracts and Building Schools for the Future projects do not impose barriers to improving school food. It wants all future school PFI contracts to incorporate facilities for cooking meals in the building specification.

Turning the Tables: Transforming School Food can be downloaded from www.dfes.gov.uk/consultations

Confectionary and snacks

OUT

IN

Liquorice

Ice cream

Mints

Crumpets

Fruit pastilles

Teacakes

Toffees

Sandwiches

Cereal bars

Pitta bread

Chocolate

Ginger nuts

Chocolate coated bars

Digestive biscuits

Chocolate biscuits

Oatcakes

Crisps

Yoghurt

Tortilla chips

Unsalted nuts

Salted nuts

Dried fruit

Bombay mix

Peanut and raisin mixes

Recommended food standards

  • Fruit and vegetables – Not less than two portions per day per child, at least one of which should be salad or vegetables and at least one of which should be fruit
  • Oily fish – On the school lunch menu at least once every three weeks
  • Deep fried products – Meals should not contain more than two deep fried products in a single week
  • Processed foods – Should not be reformed/reconstituted foods made from ‘meat slurry’
  • Bread (without spread) – Available unrestricted throughout lunch
  • Confectionery and savoury snacks – Not available through school lunches
  • Salt/highly salted condiments – Not available at lunch tables or at the service counter
  • Drinks – Only drinks available should be water (still or fizzy), skimmed or semi-skimmed milk, pure fruit juices, yoghurt and milk drinks with less than 10% added sugar, or combinations of these (eg smoothies)
  • Water – Easy access to free, fresh, chilled drinking water
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