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April 27, 2005

UK: School meals should be free say caterers

Healthy school meals should be free for all pupils, according to the organisation which represents school caterers.

Healthy school meals should be free for all pupils, according to the organisation which represents school caterers.

The long-term health benefits would soon outweigh the shorter term costs, Neil Porter, chairman of the Local Authority Caterers Association told the BBC News website.

“You could really ensure that nutritional standards are met,” he said. “The big problem we have is that it’s been commercially driven. And the big question is ‘Should school catering be treated as a business?’ And quite frankly, I don’t think it should be,” said Mr Porter, whose association represents caterers in the private and public sectors. “The way forward is for meals without charge for all pupils.”

Since celebrity chef Jamie Oliver highlighted the dismal food on offer in some schools in south London, there has been a barrage of proposals to raise standards.

This included the government promising £280m (US$ 534m) to make meals healthier.

If parents and politicians really wanted better school meals they needed to consider more root-and-branch approaches, Porter said. The most direct route to this would be to give all pupils a healthy meal without charging parents – as already happens in countries such as the educational top performer, Finland.

“If you can ensure that children throughout their school life are in a culture of eating healthily, they’re going to carry that into the rest of their lives. This means major long-term benefits for the health service. “

From the school’s perspective, it would cut down on the bureaucracy of cash collection. For pupils, it would take away the choice of whether to spend the money on crisps on the way to school.

“If you did the calculation on these savings, it would soon reduce the cost,” he said. In terms of how much it would cost, the only authority to currently provide free school meals (for all primary children) is Hull – at a cost of £3.8m per year. If this was taken as a local authority average, it would mean about £600m across England.

But Porter said that it seemed unlikely that the political will existed for such a direct intervention. There were fears about appearing to be a “nanny state”.

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