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Friday, March 25, 2005

Food for thought

Nobody can pretend that school meals are the most nutritious event of our lives but there are worse culinary experiences and many of them occur at home or in restaurants where we pay good money to eat food with an indifferent nutritional value. Most of us are able to relate horror stories from when we were at school, whether it is the tabioca pudding or the meat pie dripping with grease and goodness knows what else. Not that many of us however, can claim to have gone into a school in the last year and eaten such a meal. Jamie Oliver's programme, therefore, was both a public service and an easy hit.

What has surprised me a little is the reaction of Welsh parents to Jamie Oliver's narrative of culinary disaster in a London Borough. Welsh Councils have done more than most to improve the nutritional quality of their meals and although there is some way to go, the experience in schools here is far better than that in Jamie Oliver's London. The operational manager for catering services in Cardiff sums it up when she says "Here in Cardiff we already provide healthy, high-quality meals and we are very proud of it. Free fruit is on offer and chips are only served once a week - beef burgers are still offered but they are made with organic meat and processed foods, and "shapes" are being phased out."

In many cases, withdrawing your child from school dinners and giving them sandwiches instead, actually worsens their diet. In fact part of the problem of youthful obesity lies in the poor diet provided to children at home as well as a general lack of exercise. As Professor Kevin Morgan, director of Cardiff University's Regeneration Institute, who has done extensive research into school meals, says, this is "a perverse and disastrous" reaction. He goes on "It would appear that parents have become shocked at the appalling levels of processed foods in school meals but, perversely, by preventing their children from having school dinners and giving them a lunch box instead, they are giving them meals that are just as bad and, in some cases, worse."

Professor Morgan concludes, "If the Jamie Oliver effect is to outlast the television series and be more positive and benign then we will have to see real resources going into school meals and see some real training opportunities in healthy eating on the part of the cooks and infrastructure changes to help school cooks engage in cooking from scratch." He is right of course. In the meantime, before withdrawing your child from school meals ask to try one and then, if you are still not satisfied, ensure that the alternative that you provide is more nutritious.
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