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Children's Diets

Volume 460: debated on Tuesday 22 May 2007

7. What steps her Department is (a) taking and (b) planning to take to encourage the consumption of fruit and vegetables by children. (138342)

The Government have a number of programmes in place to improve the diet and awareness of healthy eating among children and young people. These include the new school meals standards, the healthy schools programme, healthy start, 5 a day, and the school fruit and vegetable scheme.

I thank the Minister for her response. Does she agree that much could be done to tackle child obesity and health inequalities if she was to work with colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills to build on the excellent initiative of providing free fruit and veg to schools and deliver free, compulsory, nutritious school meals for all children?

My hon. Friend makes a good point about tackling inequalities. I was pleased that the 2005 health survey for England showed that the number of children eating fruit and vegetables was increasing, with the number eating at least five a day going up to 17 per cent. from 10 per cent. in 2001. I am also pleased that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs household expenditure survey, which was published in January, shows that there has been the biggest increase in expenditure on fruit and vegetables for 20 years—it is up by 7.7 per cent. However, we can do more. This Government have given local authorities the power to decide whether they want to provide free school meals, and that matter is best dealt with locally. I am proud of our joint work with the Department for Education and Skills which has meant that more than 89 per cent. of schools are now taking part in a voluntary programme called healthy schools.

Since every woman I have ever known, from my grandmother onwards, has tirelessly tried to persuade their offspring—and indeed their husbands—to eat more vegetables, what makes the hon. Lady think that her increasingly Orwellian Department will be more successful?

Well, clearly we support families making choices. I am pleased that families are increasingly making healthy choices for their children and themselves. I do not want to get into the hon. Gentleman’s family background in relation to this—

I will leave others to comment on that. However, we must get the balance right when the Government are trying to intervene in areas that are their responsibility. We expect children to attend school; that is part of the law—[Interruption.] Even grammar schools. Given that we require children to go to school, it is part of our endeavour that when food and drink are provided at school, they should be the healthiest available. We must achieve a step change through which parents are enabled to make the right choices for their children. More and more parents are doing so with our support, rather than any lecturing.

On Friday, I am visiting Ellenbrook primary school in my constituency to open its healthy schools vegetable garden. Will my hon. Friend congratulate the school on not only promoting healthy eating, but teaching children how to grow the herbs, fruit and vegetables that will be used in their school meals every day? Does she think that other schools should follow that example?

My hon. Friend cites a really good example of a project that is seeking to achieve on several fronts. It is encouraging an understanding of the need to eat healthily and getting children out there to grow food, thus increasing their understanding of where it comes from. Alongside that, it increases physical activity at school. I am pleased to inform the House that from September, we will start a joint project with DFES and DEFRA: the year of food and farming. We will make links with local producers to find out what we can do to encourage more schools to purchase more locally the fruit and vegetables that can make a difference. Learning about how food is grown and its production to the point at which it ends up on the plate can make a difference to an understanding of a healthy diet.

Why does the Minister think that the recent evaluation of the school fruit and vegetable programme by the National Foundation for Educational Research found that it had no lasting impact on what children were eating, that only 27 per cent. of children achieved the five-a-day target, and that only a third of children were aware of what that target was—no doubt some thought that it referred to cigarettes? In any case, two thirds of the fruit and veg in the programme comes from overseas and half contains more than one type of possibly harmful pesticide. Some £77 million later, is this another costly, headline-grabbing, ill-thought-out Government initiative that has gone pear shaped?

The hon. Gentleman raises several questions. I understand that the article that appeared in The Sunday Telegraph a few weeks ago was based on a report that examined figures from about three years ago. We are evaluating the scheme at present and we will publish the figures shortly. However, the indicators show that both the consumption and purchase of fruit and vegetables are going up. The school fruit and vegetable scheme serves 2 million four to six-year-olds. Next time I get letters from Conservative Members asking me to extend the scheme, I will refer them to the hon. Gentleman.