Pupils return to school canteens

STEVE DOWNES The health of a generation of Norfolk children could be boosted after thousands of pupils returned to school dinners - months after deserting the canteen in their droves when junk food was taken off the menu.

STEVE DOWNES

The health of a generation of Norfolk children could be improved after thousands of pupils returned to school dinners - months after deserting the canteen in droves when junk food was taken off the menu.

The latest figures show at least an extra 11,000 children a day have abandoned their packed lunches in favour of nutritious meals since the downturn in September.

Falling numbers were put down to the introduction at the start of the school year of mandatory healthy ingredients in all schools - with junk food and sugary drinks being removed from menus and vending machines.

The action came after celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's TV show, Jamie's School Dinners, exposed the poor quality of food being fed to many young people. He famously slammed Bernard Matthews's Turkey Twizzlers and revealed that the average cost of ingredients per child in some areas was as low as 37p.

The combination of Jamie's horror stories and anger among children when their favourite burgers, chips and crisps were taken away had a drastic effect on the number of youngsters eating school meals.

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Jamie's healthy meals crusade prompted this year's government action, with new rules about fatty and sugary foods and the promise of £280m to help providers fund better quality.

Last night, Alison Allen, commercial director for catering at Norfolk County Services, which provides all of Norfolk's primary school meals and half of lunches in high schools, said the tide had turned.

She said: "Looking back, resistance to the menu changes had a big impact. We knew it would happen and thought it would take a long, long time to get the children back. But the latest figures show that we are only around 3pc down on where we were in primary schools and 7pc down on where we were in high schools.

"We hope to be back to par by the end of January and then will be looking to increase numbers."

Norfolk Michelin Star chef Galton Blackiston, who starred on BBC-TV's Great British Menu series and has worked with Norfolk County Council to encourage children to sample school meals, is delighted by the upturn. "Perhaps this means that parents are telling their children that they've got to eat healthily? Having a healthy meal at least once a day is crucial," he said.

Rosalie Monbiot, Norfolk's cabinet member for children's services, said: "The meals are very healthy and nutritious. It helps children's concentration and improves their overall health. Although they have every right to have their own lunchboxes, I'm very concerned about their content. I would prefer children to be eating school dinners."

Mrs Allen said the number of primary school children eating the meals each day had fallen as low as 27,000 a day in September. It was now up to 36,500. At high schools, she said, the low point was 7,000 young people a day in September, but now it was averaging 9,200.

Despite the improvement, only about a third of young people in Norfolk eat school dinners.

Mrs Allen said numbers in Norfolk had also taken a big hit around Easter this year, when the decision was taken in Norfolk to improve the quality of school meals, independent of impending legislation.

Numbers started to creep up through the summer but there was another frustrating hit in September when the government rules took effect.

Since then, though, there was strong evidence that schools and parents were buying into the idea of nutritious meals.