School children are still opting for unhealthy meals even though more than 80% of schools provide healthy alternatives, conclude three Government reports on school meals.
A study of the food-related knowledge and skills of 14- to 16-year-olds found that pupils did understand the principles of healthy eating but rarely put them into practice.
This finding was backed by a survey of 79 secondary schools by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES). High-fat meals such as burgers and chips remained the favourites for 48% of pupils, while vegetables and salads were chosen by just 6% of children and only 2% opted for fruit.
The DfES found that, while the schools offered a variety of food, the overall balance was not healthy and one in five failed to meet the national nutrition standards for schools launched in April 2001.
A third study, by the Office for Standards in Education, revealed that the meals offered in 25 nursery, infant and primary schools visited did not "complement sufficiently" the healthy-eating messages being taught.
Infants were often served chicken nuggets and deep-fried potato shapes while inadequate portions of nutritionally-sound options left many youngsters further down the queue without a healthy alternative.
The DfES report recommended that nutritional standards should be made compulsory and that schools should document the nutritional quality of lunches in order to improve children's health.
The Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA) supported the DfES findings, but said a restricted choice approach would only work if packed lunches were monitored and teachers could prevent a lunch-time exodus to the local takeaway or sweet shop.
It was also concerned about the costs of funding a radical change in school catering. "With the absence of any new central Government investment, no changes to budgetary responsibility for school catering and a diminishing local framework, any aims of realistically improving secondary school meals are, quite frankly, pie in the sky," said chairman Vivienne Buller.
The government will publish a healthy living blueprint later this year suggesting how schools can improve pupil's approach to food and drink.
by Angela Frewin
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