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20 February 2006updated 27 Sep 2015 3:00am

Grease is the word

You may have thought junk food had been banned from schools. Well think again, because behind the sc

By Katharine Quarmby

It was a rip-roaring speech calculated to warm old Labour hearts. At last autumn’s party conference the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, told delegates bluntly that “the scandal of junk food served every day in school canteens must end”. And she went further, promising: “Because children need healthy options throughout the school day, I can also announce that from next September no schools will be able to have vending machines selling crisps, chocolate and sugary fizzy drinks.”

There seemed no doubt about it: shamed into action, new Labour was finally going to brush aside the pressures from industry and guarantee healthy, nutritious food for youngsters in our schools. Less than five months later, however, it looks as though what will actually be delivered may fall far short of what Kelly promised. And the reason for this, according to some of the most influential figures in the field, is pressure from the food industry.

“The big food companies are lobbying very strongly to water down our recommendations and Ruth Kelly is coming under real pressure at a time when she is beleaguered on all fronts,” says Peter Mel-chett, policy director of the Soil Association, who sat on the panel of experts that last year drafted tough new standards for school meals in England.

Helen Crawley, science director of the Caroline Walker Trust, which devised nutritional guidelines for school meals, is also concerned: “The role of the new School Food Trust remains unclear and at the moment there is no one actually providing advice to schools or caterers on how to work with the proposed standards.”

The School Food Trust has only just been established and it is supposed to help schools make the change to healthier eating. Given Kelly’s promises, however, its composition is surprising: there are no nutritionists among its 16 members, nor is there anyone representing teachers, parents’ groups or health charities. Only two members belong to charities working in schools.

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In fact, the largest group represented on the trust is private and local-authority caterers. The government, in other words, has devolved responsibility for improving catering in schools to the very organisations responsible for serving up food condemned as “a scandal” by the Education Secretary herself.

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One of the most problematic parts of the reform package is the food provided through breakfast clubs, after-school clubs and vending machines, and a special “Food Other Than Lunch” subcommittee of the trust has been set up to tackle this.

The identity of the chair of this subcommittee may also come as a surprise. He is Paul Kelly, corporate affairs director of Compass Group plc, which is not only the largest food-service company in the world but also, incidentally, one of the biggest names in school catering and the vending-machine business. A spokesman for the School Food Trust could not see any problem of conflict of interest: “All the interests of members are fully declared and in the open.” And what is the subcommittee doing? Its final report is not yet published, but it appears to have decided that the nutrient-based standards deemed essential for school lunches need not apply to food delivered through breakfast and after-school clubs.

As Helen Crawley points out, this would hardly reflect “the obvious need to nutritionally protect primary-school children, who may spend the majority of their day on school premises”. Children as young as three or four in school nurseries may be fed sugar pops every breakfast time and white toast with jam every teatime – in perfect conformity with official standards.

As for the contents of vending machines in England’s schools, it is clear that despite Ruth Kelly’s brave words, a fierce rearguard action is being fought to keep snacks and soft drinks on sale. At the subcommittee’s hearings on the issue, the voice of industry dominated: of 19 groups presenting oral evidence, 13 represented the food industry and vending interests. Their message was to trumpet again and again the importance of “choice” for children.

Yet, as Peter Melchett points out, choice had already been dismissed by the review panel that preceded the trust. He is alarmed: “If the School Food Trust backtracks on the review panel’s rejection of the principle of choice on the basis of such one-sided oral evidence, it would be a real scandal.”

The food industry’s campaign is not confined to the committees. In an adjournment debate in parliament before Christmas, MPs launched an attack on the Health Education Trust (HET), a charity that has campaigned for 20 years to raise standards in schools, accusing it of having a vested interest in healthy vending. The British Soft Drinks Association admits it briefed the MPs before the debate, and Denis Murphy, one of the Labour backbenchers who led the assault, represents the Wansbeck constituency, where the soft drinks company Waters and Robson is based.

According to HET’s director, Joe Harvey: “It’s quite obvious that the companies are fighting tooth and nail on this. As it stands, traditional vending will cease in schools come September, and they are hurling resources at stopping this happening. It is therefore essential that the government follows the recommendations of the review panel and does not bow to industry lobbying.”

Richard Laming, spokesman for the British Soft Drinks Association, is open about the lobbying: “The phrase that Ruth Kelly used – ‘fizzy sugary drinks’ – applies to carbonated drinks. But many of our members now provide diet, low-calorie drinks.” And he insists: “Diet drinks are a variant of water. They have the nutritional benefits of water but taste better. We feel that there is movement on this and we have been listened to.”

In the adjournment debate several MPs – two with soft-drinks makers in their constituencies – argued that drinks flavoured with “intense” sweeteners such as sucralose and aspartame should still be allowed in schools after September. Replying, John Healey, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, indicated that the government may be ready to give ground. “Matters of detail such as the inclusion or exclusion of a particular diet – for example, those sweetened with artificial sweeteners – or of carbonated drinks, will need to be dealt with once the consultation has finished . . . No decisions have yet been taken.”

Over at the Health Education Trust, Joe Harvey is incensed. “Diet drinks would just substitute for the full-sugar versions, taking money out of children’s pockets and offering them no nutritional benefits in return,” he argues. “It would also make it more difficult for vending machines to sell pure fruit juices and milk in place of heavily branded products.”

On snack foods, Helen Crawley is also concerned about government backsliding. “The debate appears to be moving sideways from the original premise of banning crisps and packeted snacks in schools, as part of a ‘whole school approach’, to helping industry work out what sort of crisp or snack bar is acceptable.”

Another body lobbying for all it’s worth now is Snacma, which represents makers of snack foods. “We are always talking to government: the Department of Health, the Food Standards Agency, DfES, and a selection of MPs,” says a spokesman. “We’ve tried to say that there is a principle of providing choice for kids and there should be a stepwise approach, but some members of the trust are more radical and they just want the machines to contain nothing but water, and we’re not sure there will be enough choice to stock vending machines under the current recommendations.”

This argument has met dusty responses elsewhere. France has banned vending machines completely from its schools, as have some states in the US. Scotland, which started the healthy eating debate in the UK two years ago with a successful initiative to improve school food, is now poised to ban all fizzy drinks, chocolate and sweets from school vending machines.

In England, however, the government seems to be bending over backwards to accommodate business.

Jackie Schneider, of the Merton Parents for Better Food in School campaign in south London, is appalled. “When the council here in Merton surveyed parents on school foods, vending machines were one of their top concerns. Parents don’t want their children going into school and getting a bag of crisps and a can of Coke.”

She rejects the argument of the choice camp that kids will only go out of school to get what they want. If we’re worried about that, she asks, “Why don’t we sell them beer and fags, too?” Parental pressure on these issues, she warns, “is not going to go away”.

The industry is pushing choice – always a seductive word for new Labour. But the danger is that the commercial version of choice, if it is not challenged forcefully now, will debase the whole healthy- eating initiative in schools and rob Ruth Kelly’s sweeping promises of last year of much of their value for children.

Joe Harvey sums up the position: “The major multinationals are in the business of delivering profits for the companies and dividends to shareholders. We in education and health are in the business of giving children the best possible nutrition. It’s a simple divide. Don’t let the companies undermine this opportunity.”