SCHOOL DINNERS Public health managers rally around proposals to ban 'junk food'

Published: 24/03/2005, Volume II5, No. 5947 Page 7

Public health managers have lined up behind Jamie Oliver's campaign for a ban on junk food in schools.

The celebrity chef called for the ban - forcing children to eat healthier school meals - as his TV series Jamie's School Dinners ended last week.

The demand was one of five challenges set for the government in the chef's Feed Me Better campaign, which also called for a doubling of the current budget of 37p per school dinner.

The programme, which saw a ban on junk food rolled out to 30 schools across Greenwich (see box below), has now spurred intense political activity.

On Sunday prime minister Tony Blair admitted that parents were worried about the quality of school food, and reiterated earlier promises to set up an independent school food trust to look at the quality of food.

On Monday, launching Labour's mini manifesto on children, education secretary Ruth Kelly said it was difficult to produce high-quality meals on current budgets, and promised to increase funding - but would not say by how much.

Now primary care trust managers are urging the government to seize the initiative and introduce a ban, which they believe is their best weapon in achieving the government's target to stop the rise in childhood obesity by 2010.

At a Department of Health conference for 88 spearhead PCTs last week, Jamie's demands were a recurring theme, along with complaints about the failure to ringfence funds for public health. Health minister Melanie Johnson was tackled about the failure of chancellor Gordon Brown to identify 'more money specifically for food in schools' in last week's Budget.

Ms Johnson insisted the issue was not 'all about money, but also about skills and using the opportunities and skills we have lost' to improve school meals.

But public health managers contacted by HSJ were unanimous in their calls for a ban on junk food and substantial investment in school food budgets.

Bridget Imeson, health development strategist for Greenwich teaching PCT, the location for Jamie's programme, urged the government to seize on the opportunity that the campaign had provided.

She said the PCT came to the same conclusions before Jamie's initiative began about the need to ban unhealthy food and increase investment and training. But she said it took the force of celebrity status to ram home the message.

'It would have taken us years, but get a celebrity involved and you get this amazing turnaround, ' she said.

Ms Imeson said the government 'absolutely' needed to tackle the issue, which she blamed squarely on the Conservative government's decision to introduce compulsory tendering for school meals in 1988.

'This is all about the legacy of compulsory competitive tendering.

It is a huge incentive to schools to downgrade the quality of foods to bring down costs, ' she added.

Banning junk food was the only way to create swift change, she added. 'My kids are at Greenwich School and I know that they have been enjoying the healthy food provided now. But if you give them chips and burgers, That is what they will eat.' Central Cheshire PCT public health director Wendy Meredith said: 'What Jamie Oliver has done with his programme is given the government clear messages about what to do. They need to ban the junk because even if they are given the healthy option children will still eat the unhealthier one.' She said she was grateful for the 'buzz' and 'momentum for change' that the programme had provided.

Middlesbrough PCT public health director Dr Peter Kelly and North Manchester PCT public health director Eleanor Roaf were also unequivocal in their demands for legislation to ban junk food, and disappointed by the government's failure to include action on this front in November's public health white paper.

Dr Kelly added: 'If they have the will, the legislation is pretty simple.

PCTs can influence, but schools are so autonomous these days they do not have to listen.' He said it was vital to be consistent. 'There is no point Jamie cooking you lunch when You have got vending machines full of fizzy drinks and sweets down the corridor.'

Give the guy a prize: faculty nomination for chef?

The Faculty of Public Health has thrown its weight behind the campaign to ban junk food and improve the quality of school fare.

Faculty president Professor Rod Griffiths said Jamie Oliver's influence 'will be crucial, alongside that of the public health community, in persuading the government to adopt quantified nutritional standards' for school dinners.

And directors of public health have been lobbying the faculty to nominate the star chef for the Faculty of Public Health's Alwyn Smith prize for outstanding achievements to public health. Nominations will be decided later this week, with the winner to be announced at the faculty's annual scientific meeting in June.

Proof in the pudding: Greenwich takes action

Thirty schools across Greenwich borough are now taking part in Jamie's school meals scheme, which was piloted via the Jamie's School Dinners TV programme.

Last month, Greenwich borough council voted to increase spending on meals from 37p to 50p per child.

Greenwich teaching primary care trust will work with catering staff and head teachers to provide long-term support for the strategy, which has already produced notable results.

Eileen Miller, head of Our Lady of Grace school in Charlton, said her school had noticed a significant reduction in the use of asthma inhalers, for example.

Greenwich teaching PCT director of children and young people's services Sally Jones said the main challenge now was 'sustainability'.

'After Jamie's input has ended cooks will continue to need support and training... 'The wider work needs to be strengthened to develop schools and communities as environments that promote and support healthy eating.'

Jamie's demands versus government pledges

What Jamie wants

A ban on junk food; nutritional standards on school dinners measured by schools watchdog Ofsted.

Lunchtime meal should give children one third of their daily nutritional requirements.

Investment in dinner ladies; improve qualifications and training.

Put cookery back on the curriculum.

Double the money; the average amount of money spent on a school meal is now between 35p and 45p.

www. feedme better. com

What the government has promised

New minimum health specifications for processed foods to reduce fat, sugar and salt content. These will come into effect from September.

'Tougher nutritional standards' from September 2006.

The establishment of a school meals trust to raise standards, with Ofsted inspecting and reporting on progress.

Extra resources to build new school kitchens and renew existing ones.

www. dfes. gov. uk