Lib Dems make meal of school food policy

Hull North MP Diana Johnson today challenged Hull City Council's Cabinet to seek endorsement at a full Council meeting for their "confused, inconsistent and wasteful" policy of reintroducing primary school meal charges.

The MP's demand comes after Hull City Council's Liberal Democrat leadership announced a "managed withdrawal" of Hull's award-winning 'Eat Well, Do Well' initiative. The pioneering scheme had increased spending on school meal ingredients, introducing healthier menus, while making free school meals universal for Hull's 24,000 primary school pupils. The initiative was seen as a national pilot scheme and is being evaluated by Hull University.

Hull's pioneering policy was praised recently by Professor Derek Colquhoun of Hull University's Centre for Education Studies for "massively increasing" the take-up of school meals in Hull from 36 per cent to 64 per cent. The 'Eat Well, Do Well' policy has been central to Hull's progress in improving children's diets and early research indicates that primary school children's readiness to learn has already improved in Hull.

Hull City Council's move comes after the latest official figures showed that more than a quarter of English secondary schoolchildren are clinically obese; almost double the proportion of a decade ago. The National Obesity Forum described these figures as a "public health time-bomb" in the making, as children who are obese in their early teens are twice as likely to die by the age of 50.

Diana Johnson MP said: "Liberal Democrat policy on free healthy school meals is confused, inconsistent and wasteful. Previously, Hull's Lib Dem Council Leader claimed that the sole purpose of reintroducing primary school meals charges was to enable extra spending on school food ingredients. Now their reason seems to be a need to raise income from primary school parents to help resolve problems elsewhere in the Council's finances.

"The Lib Dems are allowing the three year pilot scheme to run its course into 2007. However, it seems that they have pre-judged the outcome of Hull University's study into the free school food scheme by announcing the policy's demise in advance. This is even though it looks certain that the expert evaluation, funded by taxpayers, will show that the 'Eat Well, Do Well' initiative has been a great success for Hull.

"Like the Tories, the Lib Dem regard free healthy school meals as a welfare measure to be aimed only at the poorest. In reality, the policy promoted healthier eating for all primary school pupils, because poor diet and childhood obesity goes further up the income range than the entitlement to means-tested benefits.

"Making many parents pay significant amounts each week, while hypocritically extending the bureaucracy and the stigma of means-testing, would reverse the improved take-up of healthy school meals. It would contribute towards the public health time-bomb ticking in a generation of Hull children that will impose major costs on the NHS in coming decades.

"Although the Lib Dems have Conservative support for ending the universal provision of free school meals, I challenge them to take this proposal to the full Council to see whether they have majority among councillors on this issue. With the Government in the process of giving Councils throughout the country the power and resources to follow Hull's pioneering example, it is sad that the Lib Dems seem intent on wrecking the healthy school food policy in Hull itself.

"The Council needs to develop its healthy school food policy - not weaken it. We need to further increase - not decrease - the take-up of healthy school meals. This means further improving the quality of ingredients, presenting school food in ways that attract youngsters and encouraging physical exercise. It is also important that the message goes out to parents that healthy food for children - at school and at home - need not be too expensive.

"We now have less than a year in which to save Hull's healthy school food policy from the Lib Dems and Tories."