GP Taylor: School dinners should be free – and fully British

Should all school meals be free?
Should all school meals be free?
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I HAVE struggled with my weight ever since I was in the police force. Thankfully I have always managed to stay the right side of the chubby line away from obesity.

As a child, I was stick-thin. Food wasn’t in abundance and exercise was compulsory. There was no Xbox or even regular children’s TV. There was, of course, the park at the end of the street and cricket against the gate.

School dinners were the mainstay of my diet. They were wholesome, cooked on site and traditional meat and two veg with an often uneatable pudding. For me, they were free and a very welcome part of my life. In those days it was unusual to see a child who was fat – those who had a fuller figure usually lived in the smarter end of town.

It is worrying in this age of body consciousness to see that a third of children aged two to 15 are either overweight or obese according to Government figures.

If they continue to be obese in adulthood they run the risk of premature death, heart disease and depression. Added to this, obesity-related illnesses cost the NHS £5.1bn between 2014 and 2015, quite a staggering amount.

Children aged five from poor income groups are twice as likely to be obese as their richer counterparts, and this rises to three times more likely by the age of 11.

In 2017, the Government came up with an action plan to reduce these figures in 10 years. This included a levy on sugary drinks and getting children to exercise for one hour per day. Some health professionals say that this has already failed.

One of the pillars of the report was to make school dinners healthier. As a writer of children’s books, every year at this time I am invited into quite a few schools to encourage reading as part of World Book Day.

Last year, I spoke to 2,000 children around Britain and had my fill of school dinners. I ate smoked salmon salad in a public school in north London and pizza and chips in a struggling primary on Tyneside. One school even sent out for its dinners to a local pub and these turned out to be a sandwich and a packet of crisps.

Good school food is a lottery and yet again it is our poorest children that miss out.

Children not on school meals usually have a packed lunch that consists of a sandwich, yoghurt and a drink, not the best food for a growing child, but who can blame busy parents battling to get children to school and themselves to work?

One school very near to me even has a tuck shop where children can get their treats. Surely this isn’t a good thing in an age when we are told that sugar is so bad? Shouldn’t we be encouraging children to make healthy food choices?

This isn’t just about health, it is also about finances. A sick and obese population puts a drain on health services and more tax revenue is needed to support the NHS to treat people with obesity-related problems.

With all this in mind, isn’t it time for a complete overhaul of how we feed primary-aged children? If parents cannot be trusted to make healthy choices for their children, the State has to intervene.

There is an ideal opportunity for the Government to save future health spending by giving all primary children free school meals. Schools should be stopped from using savings on food budgets to fund other areas. Government money should be spent on good-quality food, locally sourced and cooked on site. Children could be educated to make healthy choices and even take part in the cooking and preparation of their school food as part of the curriculum.

There should be a return to traditional British food, with no sign of a fajita or a focaccia on the menu. Seasonal, home-cooked food should play a major part, with health professionals helping those families where obesity is a problem. Vending machines and all sugar-based drinks should be banned from schools and local councils should restrict the opening hours of fast-food outlets near schools.

Obesity in children is a crisis. In a time when the media is dictating to people they should be thin, how sadly ironic is it that more people are fat?

As a fat person myself, I know how hard it is to battle with a weight problem.

Government and families have to act together to ensure that the alarming rise in childhood obesity is stopped and children can enjoy a healthy and happy life – healthy free school meals should be at the centre of their health and wellbeing.

GP Taylor is a writer and broadcaster from Scarborough.