The school meals failure


Last updated at 15:09 07 March 2005

School dinners given to half a million youngsters every day provide poor helpings of the key nutrients vital for a growing child, a study reveals.

It paints a harrowing picture of a meat and fish mush served to pupils which is short on vitamin C, fibre, calcium and carbohydrates.

The research looked at meals provided by Scolarest, part of the giant Compass Group, which serves dinners in 2,000 schools across the country.

A current outcry over school meals has focused attention on processed meat and fish products which are made from scraps of flesh mechanically recovered from carcasses, skin, filler material and artificial additives. These include Turkey Twizzlers, Turkey Dinosaurs and Pork Tendersteaks from Bernard Matthews, together with Fish Rockets and Monster Feet from other suppliers.

Lack of vitamins

The study by scientists at Eurofins laboratories was commissioned by a London council to identify what children are eating. It found the Scolarest meals, which are typical of those in all schools, contained only 29 per cent of the recommended level of vitamin C needed per meal for a healthy immune system.

They contained 77 per cent of the fibre necessary for good digestive health and 80 per cent of the minimum amount of calcium needed for the development of strong bones.

Carbohydrates promote energy and growth. Children were eating 90 per cent of the minimum recommended.

Youngsters were also eating fewer calories per meal than recommended - 468 compared to an ideal of 559.

But this may be because youngsters are snacking rather than eating three square meals as previous generations did.

Jamie's campaign

Details of the survey emerged as MPs joined a campaign led by Jamie Oliver and the Soil Association to increase the quality of school meals by raising spending above the 45p per pupil average.

Soil Association policy director, Lord Peter Melchett, said: "These findings confirm our own research showing school meals are barren of vital nutrients. Typically, children are getting fried, congealed muck - food which is short of vitamins and nutrients and high in fat, salt and sugar.

"A lot of schools and local education authorities want to improve the food but they don't have the cash. The Government has got to put more money into school meals."

Jamie Oliver has been particularly scathing about processed meat products and challenged Scolarest to dump them.

The company has now agreed to withdraw Turkey Twizzlers from all schools by Easter and is promising to look at a ban on similar products. The chef, whose series Jamie's School Dinners is screened on Channel 4, said yesterday: "Getting all the cheap, processed junk food out of schools, and getting the dinner ladies cooking real food, is going to help the kids across Britain."

A cross-party group of 46 MPs has signed a Commons motion backing increased spending on school meals. Scolarest claims its hands are tied by a lack of money and the fact that it cannot force children to choose healthy options.

Communications chief Lesley Potter said: "Our menus fully meet the Government's nutritional guidelines but we cannot make children eat certain foods.

"Every caterer is going through the same thing. We are doing as much as we can. There are promotions to encourage healthy choices and children are rewarded with, for example, a cuddly toy.

"The average spend per primary school pupil is 45p. To improve the menu with more fresh fruit and vegetables, fresh meat and some organic produce, it needs to be 60p to 70p."

The Bernard Matthews company defended its processed meat products. A spokesman said: "We believe there is no one food that is bad for you and it is the balance of food you eat that makes for a good or bad diet."

The company added that it has been lowering salt and fat levels.

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