Protect free school meals, say doctors

Sep 27, 2015 by

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Free school meals for infant pupils must be protected and not sacrificed in any budget cuts, say top doctors and nutritionists in a letter to a paper.

Writing to the Sunday Times, the group say that if the meals were scrapped, the move could harm children’s health.

The coalition government introduced the meals a year ago for all pupils in the first three years of school in England.

But there has been speculation the policy could face cuts under the Conservative administration.

Such a move would be “short-term thinking indeed”, argues the letter, although there has been no word that the meals are under threat in the cuts of between 25% and 40% demanded by Chancellor George Osborne from every government department from unprotected budgets for his spending review.

The free school meals budget has cost around £600m each year – but the meals could be vulnerable as they are not part of the per-pupil schools budget, which is protected.

Childhood obesity

The letter, signed by 40 leading health professionals, applauds the government for its “continued support” of universal infant free school meals and the School Food Plan which stipulates nutritional standards for meals served in local authority-run schools.

“With one in three children currently leaving primary school overweight or obese, ensuring a healthy, nutritionally balanced school lunch has never been so important,” it says.

The signatories, who include Prof Lord Darzi of Denham, director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation, and Prof Sheila the Baroness Hollins, who chairs the British Medical Association’s science board, describe childhood obesity as “one of our greatest public health challenges”.

They list health risks faced by overweight and obese children, including insulin resistance, hypertension, early signs of heart disease, asthma and poor mental health.

The letter argues free meals could pay for themselves many times over by improving diets and reducing NHS costs.

Only 1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards which apply to school food, it adds.

“There is evidence that children who eat a healthy school lunch consume more vegetables and fewer sugary drinks and crisps.

“It would be short-term thinking indeed for the government to cut the funding for universal infant free school meals.”

The letter says free healthy school lunches for infants are “the bedrock” of a “transformative childhood obesity strategy” to tackle the marketing of less healthy food and drink, boost food education in schools, encourage companies to reformulate their products and support families in healthier eating.

Tight finances

Dr Colin Michie, chairman of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health nutrition committee, said the meals should remain free because everyone would use them.

Rates of obesity have soared, said Dr Michie, who added: “We are now spending billions in the NHS on conditions such as diabetes which we are creating in our teenagers because they are getting overweight.

“Any investment in young children that reduces that rate of pathology in older children and young adults would be terribly worthwhile. This is a small investment and not a big one.”

But Jonathan Simons, head of education at the centre-right Policy Exchange, said pilot studies could not find “any direct impact, purely from having a free school meal on things like childhood obesity or body mass index”.

He added: “So although it sounds like a nice thing to have, the evidence simply isn’t there to suggest it is a good use of money in tight financial circumstances.”

A Department for Education spokesman said the belief that every child, regardless of background, should have the same opportunities was “at the heart” of what the government was doing with school food.

“No child should be hindered because they are not eating a nutritious meal at lunchtime,” he said.

“We have provided significant financial support to schools to help them deliver universal infant free school meals. We have come a long way and the new School Food Standards mean pupils of all ages are eating good food that sows the seeds for healthy eating for life.”

The spending review will be published on 25 November.

Source: Protect free school meals, say doctors – BBC News

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