Doctors demand free school meals to help tackle obesity crisis
A free school meal scheme should be extended across Northern Ireland to include thousands more children in a bid to tackle the obesity crisis, leading doctors have said.
The British Medical Association (BMA) have recommended that all children up to the age of seven should get a healthy lunch and benefit from fruit and vegetable schemes, similar to those in England.
Currently only children whose parents receive certain benefits can get school meals free of charge here.
But as part of a major report, 'Food for Thought', the BMA says all children up to P3 should be included. It added that the extension of the provision of free school meals be "universal rather than based on entitlement". A regional fruit and vegetable scheme does not exist in Northern Ireland.
The idea was part of a range of hard-hitting recommendations in the report to address the serious problems of diet-related ill-health.
It comes amid shocking research showing that 25% of children aged 2-10 in Northern Ireland are classed as overweight and obese - a figure that has not changed since 2005-6.
Dr Paul Darragh, a member of the BMA's Board of Science, said doctors are increasingly concerned about the impact of poor diet on patients' health.
The Northern Ireland doctor said the health problems linked to obesity are not only a significant cause of ill-health and premature death, but a considerable drain on NHS resources.
"It is critical that healthy eating patterns are established when people are young and we believe that providing a healthy meal to children every day will help establish those patterns," he said.
Mr Darragh added: "Evidence suggests that universal provision of free school meals is beneficial towards this."
Recent research showed that 67% of children here were not eating their five-a-day.
"Young children in England already benefit from a daily fruit and veg scheme, getting a piece of fresh fruit or a portion of vegetables every day, and we would like to see a similar scheme introduced here, ideally with all primary school children benefiting from it," Mr Darragh said.
In England fruit and vegetables are delivered to schools three times a week to ensure freshness and include a choice of bananas, apples, pears, carrots, tomatoes and easy-peel citrus fruits.
The BMA report also criticised "short-lived, mass-media public health campaigns" used in the UK aimed at promoting healthier diets. They said a new, all-inclusive approach, involving agencies, schools, and government was needed.
"While these can increase knowledge and awareness, they have been found to be ineffective in changing behaviour", the report said.
It added that despite "a whole-school approach" starting to gain momentum in the UK, there is a need for its wider implementation.
The BMA also recommends that the price of fruit and vegetables should be subsidised through a "sugar tax", to encourage healthier dietary habits.