MP fears child obesity time-bomb in Hull

Reintroducing charges for primary school meals would undermine Hull's award-winning 'Eat Well Do Well' policy, Hull North MP Diana Johnson warned today.

The MP's claim 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.

Hull Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have pledged to abolish the free universal provision of school meals to the City's 24,000 primary schools pupils if they have a majority on Hull City Council after the local elections on 4 May. The policy has been central to Hull's progress in improving children's diets and attainment in schools.

In proposing to reintroduce school meals charges for those not on means-tested benefits, the Liberal Democrats claim that charges are the way to improve school meals, even though expert opinion shows that many different factors make up the cost of school meals and reintroducing means-tested charges would harm take-up of the healthy meals. Conservative Group Leader John Fareham told the Hull Daily Mail on 24 March that Tories opposed universal free school meals because "it perpetuates a culture of state reliance".

Diana Johnson MP said: "In their joint policy, the Lib Dems and Tories seem to believe that universal provision of free school meals is primarily a welfare measure aimed only at the lowest income families. In reality, Labour's 'Eat Well Do Well' policy is about promoting healthier eating for all children, because the problems of poor diet and obesity go up and down the income range.

"Making many parents pay around £10 a week would damage the take-up of healthy school meals and contribute towards the public health time-bomb ticking in a generation of Hull children. The extra cost may deter some parents, as would the pointless extra bureaucracy and the potential stigma that can accompany means-testing.

"The Lib Dem/ Tory desire to reintroduce means-testing into primary school food is sheer hypocrisy after all their criticism of the Government for using some means-testing to direct extra help to the least well off in areas such as pensions.

"The key objective for Hull is to further increase the take-up of healthy school meals by continuing improvements in the quality of ingredients and presenting the food in ways that attract youngsters. While Hull City Council is already investing more in doing this, it is also important that the message goes out to parents that healthy food for children, at school and at home, need not be prohibitively expensive."

Diana Johnson MP has also been supporting moves in Parliament to ban junk food advertising in schools.