Head teachers urged to ban packed lunches


School dinners are much better for pupils than packed lunches, which should be banned by headmasters - according to a new government-commissioned report.

The report by the founders of the Leon chain of restaurants, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, says school food has greatly improved since the "dark days of the turkey twizzler" but that only 43 per cent of children eat in canteens.

The report says: "Many parents mistakenly imagine that a packed lunch is the healthiest option. In fact, it is far easier to get the necessary nutrients into a cooked meal - even one of mediocre quality.

"Only 1 per cent of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards that currently apply to school food.

"This country faces a serious health crisis caused by bad diet. Almost 20 per cent of children are already obese by the time they leave primary school at 11. Diet-related illnesses are putting a huge strain on the nation's coffers – costing the NHS £10bn every year.

"We need to tackle the problem now, before the costs (both personal and financial) become too heavy to bear.

"Eating school dinners is better for children. It is also better for the school's finances. A half-empty dining hall – like a half-empty restaurant – is certain to lose money.

"In order for the school food service to break even, average take-up needs to get above 50 per cent. In other words, the system is currently bust. It has to be subsidised with money from school budgets and local councils, to the tune of £140m a year."

Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, the largest teachers’ union, said: "The benefit of having access to healthy food during the day is huge, both for pupils’ concentration and general well-being."

Under the proposals, headteachers have been encouraged to ban children from bringing in packed lunches and from leaving the school to go for lunch.

It argues that the good food available to school canteens will help improve academic achievement.

Education secretary Michael Gove is understood to be broadly in favour of the plan. The Department of Education said that it would provide a £16.1m injection of cash over the next two years, including £11.8m for organisations such as the Children's Food Trust and the Food For Life Partnership, to help turn around schools that are struggling with their lunch service, and £3.15m to ensure healthy breakfasts are available for thousands of children who arrive at school hungry.

The government has agreed to provide funding for specialist organisations to go into 5,000 schools that are struggling with their lunch service, to help them turn things around.

Revised food-based standards are to be tested and introduced from 2014. These are likely to replace the extremely stringent guidelines which control the regularity with which food groups and processed items are offered.

The new standards will be applied them to maintained schools and all new academies and free schools, the Department for Education said.

Head teachers are also being urged to lower the price of lunches to boost take-up. This might include providing subsidised meals for reception classes in primary schools and Year 7 classes in secondary schools, the report says.

And there are calls for free meals to be extended to all primary schools, starting in the most deprived areas of England. The government says it will investigate the case for extending free school meals entitlement.

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