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School Meals

Volume 453: debated on Thursday 23 November 2006

Local authorities are using a range of measures to increase school lunch take-up. They include: improving dining areas to make them more attractive to eat in; creating promotional materials on nutrition and healthy lifestyles, and involving parents in activities such as tasting sessions for the new food.

This Government are offering an unprecedented £477-million package of support to help schools and local authorities improve school food and increase take-up.

A recent BBC survey showed that the take-up of healthy school food was falling. Will my hon. Friend consider the eat well, do well scheme in Hull, which introduced free healthy school meals in all our primary schools and special schools and led to doubling the take-up? In some schools, more than 90 per cent. of children have taken up the healthy school meals option.

My hon. Friend makes a good point about what Labour-run Hull chose to do in 2004—it was ahead of the game. I accept her general comments about take-up and the BBC survey. However, although we accept that there are problems with take-up, which we anticipated two-and-a-half months into the new standards, we are in this for the long-term and we believe that we will make a difference to take-up. The BBC survey had 59 responses out of 150 local authorities, of which approximately 35 had experienced problems with take-up. That means that 115 did not respond to say that they had problems with it. Having said that, I understand that we need to work on the matter. We are therefore doing a great deal with pupils, schools and parents to ensure that take-up increases.

Is the Minister aware of the excellent work being done by the British Pig Executive—BPEX—to promote the uses of pork as a nutritious, low-fat food? Could he spare 30 minutes to meet representatives of BPEX to discuss how pork could be more widely used in our schools, which would be welcomed by the award-winning pig farmers of South Norfolk and elsewhere?

That is a very good local press release for the hon. Gentleman—I congratulate him on that. I would be delighted to meet him and his constituents, perhaps over a bacon sandwich. The interesting underlying point here is that the School Food Trust is doing important work in relation to balanced food in our schools. We are putting about £477 million into this project between now and 2011 and, for the first time since the 1960s, we are seeing a subsidy on school food, which is very important.

I do not know where the Minister was at quarter to 7 this morning, but if he was watching television he would have seen an outside broadcast featuring the catering staff of the City of Leicester college. The training of such staff is crucial to the take-up of healthy school meals. Catering staff in my area—at least 40 per cent. of whom are in the private sector—are worried by the lack of a common approach by employers towards paid leave for attending the relevant vocational and training courses. Will the Minister assure me and those members of staff that they will not lose pay when they attend such courses? That is important to the individuals concerned, and to the take-up of healthy school meals.

I assure my hon. Friend that I was watching the “Breakfast” news programme this morning, and I saw some of the excellent work that is being done. The staff at the City of Leicester college was one of the areas that was highlighted, so well done to them. My hon. Friend will be aware that we are setting aside £2 million for regional training centres to help catering staff to get skilled up to the levels that we require. We are also introducing new national vocational qualifications at level 1 and level 2 to assist this process. My hon. Friend makes an interesting point about staff being able to take time off to attend classes. I am certainly of the view that most good employers would agree that their staff should be able to get skilled up in the work place in order to make their contribution to healthier school food.

There are 4.6 million children who decide not to take school meals—healthy or otherwise. Perhaps they prefer to eat bacon sandwiches, in support of the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon). Does the Minister accept that, while schools have a right and a duty to inform parents of the healthy options for packed lunches, principals and teachers do not have a duty to act as food police, to remove items from lunch boxes or to deny youngsters the opportunity to eat their packed lunches on school premises just because the principal deems them to be unhealthy?

It is not part of our plan to ban packed lunches, but head teachers and teachers in many schools take a responsible role in helping to educate children about quality food in their packed lunches. An important part of what we are trying to do is to get the message across to children, not least through the entitlement to learn to cook a nutritional meal by the age of 16. It is important, however, in handing down that education to the children, that the message also gets back to the parents. Parents have an important role to play, not least in raising the take-up of healthy school meals.

The Minister just mentioned children’s entitlement to learn to cook a nutritional meal by the age of 16. In that context, will he have another look at food technology in the curriculum? Rather than teaching our children how to design a Mars bar, perhaps we could teach them how to cook a shepherd’s pie.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are working on this with the School Food Trust. I understand that about 70 per cent. of schools offer food technology lessons. We will also be working with extended schools to ensure that there is an entitlement for all children to be able to learn to cook a quality meal—not just with Mars bars, but with healthy, nutritional food—by the age of 16.