Michael Gove playing politics with children’s health

Michael Gove announced today that he has asked Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, founders of Leon, the healthy fast food chain to review school meals.

I met Henry Dimbleby when Leon was first starting up on Michael Von Straten’s LBC radio programme. He is lovely, and having eaten at Leon lots of times I do love their approach to food.

With the greatest respect though, they are not experts in school meals and nutrition, so I asked on twitter if they would be speaking to the original School Meals Review Panel that reviewed school food and set up the school food and nutrition standards back in 2005. And they will, alongside parents, campaign groups, School Food Trust and other stakeholders.

What is deeply concerning however, is that the Terms of Reference for this review makes no mention of nutrition standards. The stated aim of the review being to “ensure that all children eating in English schools are offered good food and given an education that cultivates in them an understanding of food and nutrition.” Again nothing about standards. It seems that Gove is side-stepping the whole issue of nutrition standards by initiating this review, and indeed, delaying doing anything about them until the review is published in 2013 – but if the it does not include standards in its terms of reference then surely this is purely a way of stalling any possible policy action.

I expressed concerns to Henry at Leon’s via twitter that all the public money that has been spent setting standards to-date would go to waste because academies do not need to meet the standards.

We need to remember why standards were introduced – because school meals were not nutritious enough. In the current economic climate, parents are struggling to feed their children, and teachers recently reported on twitter that children are coming into school hungry and worse. So school meals that provide at minimum a third of a child’s recommended intake of calories and key nutrients are a necessity now more than ever.

Michael Gove is very good at playing a political game. He has used delaying tactics since Jamie Oliver and public health campaigners first raised concerns about the lack of nutrition standards in academies. He said there was no reason to be concerned that academies did not provide healthy balanced meals that meet the standards.

But then the School Food Trust published research that found that there was a reason to be concerned. From a survey of 100 academies, a quarter were selling crisps and savoury snacks, 1 in 6 were selling confectionery, more than half were selling sugary cereal bars, and more than three quarters were selling soft drinks or squash. All food and drink banned under the nutrition standards legislation.

In April the School Food Trust demonstrated in its national study, the positive impact of school nutrition standards on teenager’s food choices at school. They found that since standards had been introduced, the percentage of teenagers eating chips at school lunch had fallen sharply from 43% to 7%. Despite this and improvements in levels of saturated fat in meals chosen and fruit and vegetables, the Trust recognises that there is still more work to be done.

And this is the crux of the matter. We need to build on the positive achievements to-date. It is a work in progress.

The latest announcement regarding the review has not been well received by Jamie Oliver, teachers organisations and Local Authority Caterers Association.

The Children’s Food Campaign published a scathing response to the review announcement stating that more reviews are just not needed.

The wonderful nutrition and food standards, developed by public health experts, are a necessary structure on which schools can develop good practice in food provision.

At the moment, while Local Authority run schools should meet nutrition standards, often food production is centralised, so fish cakes may be ready made, burgers may be ready made. But at least they have to meet good standards, for instance sausages have to have a high level of meat content, low levels of salt and under the legislation, contain no mechanically recovered meat. Local authorities, such as Hampshire only use free range eggs and use locally sourced foods in their school meal provision.

There are wonderful examples of good practice out there from Soil Association’s Food for Life to schools that have taken their catering in house, and we need more. The one common denominator between all is they use the School Food Trust’s food and nutrition standards. Allowing the increasing number of academies to provide food that does not have to meet nutrition standards will erode the work done to date.

So a having Leon founders look at school meals provision is great, in that they can lend their expertise on producing good quality, tasty meals made from fresh ingredients on a large scale.

The big question is whether a review is needed and whether Michael Gove will act on any review recommendations.

The introduction of statutory standards in academies should not be delayed by this review – the evidence that they are needed is there and the review is highly unlikely to find that they are not.

There are 100 MP’s from all parties that who want to see statutory nutrition standards in academies ask your MP to join them calling for healthy school meals for all pupils.

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