Primary school children in deprived areas will be given free healthy school meals in a £20m drive to cut obesity and get young people eating more healthily, Health Secretary Alan Johnson and Secretary of State for Children Ed Balls announced today.
Local Authorities in deprived areas are being invited to bid to take part in a two-year pilot which will look at the health benefits of free school meals. It will investigate whether free school meals:
Since the introduction of nutritional standards for school food, all school lunches are now healthier than ever. But less that half (43.6%) of primary school children sit down for a cooked school meal. This means many children are missing out on a healthy meal which, for some, could be the only hot meal of the day.
Reasons for not taking a school lunch vary but, for many families, particularly low-income families, the reason is cost. The cost of one school meal is £1.66.
Commenting on today's announcement, Mr Johnson said: "Local initiatives such as that in Hull seem to show that children who eat a healthy lunch are more likely to be better behaved, better able to learn and more likely to see their general health improve. But we need solid evidence from a nationally-assessed pilot - that's why we're investing £20m over two years in this study.
"This isn't just about making sure primary school children have a healthy meal today - it's about getting them into a habit of healthy eating for the rest of their lives and about changing the health of a generation."
Ed Balls added: "We want a healthy lunch at school not just for some, but for every child. And we want to make sure that children, particularly children from disadvantaged backgrounds who need it most, are getting a free hot meal every school day.
"Over the last couple of years there has been a revolution in school lunches. Hundreds of schools are leading the way in creating high-quality food in a proper dining culture, with high-quality canteens; stay-on-site policies where possible; good lunchtime organisation, including cutting queues by staggering lunchtimes; effective diet and nutrition education; and actively involving young people in drawing up menus.
"These trials will show us whether making the lunches free in primary schools does, in fact, improve behaviour, school and results and healthy eating at home."
The Departments for Health and Children, Schools and Families have allocated £20m over the next two years (2009-2010 and 2010-2011). Local authorities and PCTs will be asked to bid to join the pilots on the basis of matched funding, resulting in a total budget of £40m per year for the two years.
Last week Ed Balls published a new cookbook - Real Meals - which is designed to help children understand the basics of cookery.
Obesity is a huge health challenge - it causes 9,000 people to die prematurely every year and costs the NHS £4.2bn and the economy £16bn per year.
The government will shortly be launching a new movement to tackle obesity and help people to live healthier lives. Change4Life is a national movement that will help us all to change the way we live. This is not just about treating people already experiencing problems. This is about all of us starting to change the way we live, the way we eat and the way we raise our children so we can prevent obesity and related diseases.