Schools 'escaping food standards'
A "loophole" which exempts thousands of academies from signing up to strict new food standards must be closed to ensure all youngsters are eating healthy school dinners, town hall chiefs have warned.
Tough new rules for school meals came into force in England this week for council-run schools, free schools, and those that convert to academy status.
But they do not currently apply to around 4,000 schools that became academies between September 2010 and last year, according to the Local Government Association, which calculated that more than two million youngsters are attending schools that do not have to comply.
It raised concerns that while many academy chains have voluntarily signed up to the guidelines, those academies that choose not to are free to serve children unlimited fatty or fried foods, or install vending machines selling items such as crisps, chocolate and sugar-laden fizzy drinks.
David Simmonds, chair of the LGA's children and young people board, said: "Mums and dads rightly expect the food their child eats at school to be healthy and nutritious, so they will be concerned that about 4,000 schools are exempt from these new school food rules unless they choose to follow them.
"School autonomy is supposed to drive up standards but in the case of school meals we now have a two-tier system where one type of school can effectively exempt pupils from healthy choices and instead chose to sell fatty and sugary foods. With ample evidence that good food supports good learning in the classroom, all schools should meet the same high standards."
Plans to overhaul food standards were announced last year as part of a wider shake-up of school dinners.
Ministers said that they wanted to simplify the regulations to make them easier for schools to understand. The new rules do not set out specific nutritional content, but instead just state the types of food and drink that pupils should be offered, for example fruit and vegetables on a daily basis and restricting the amount of fried and fatty food available.
Previously, council-run schools had to follow strict food and nutritional standards that set down the specific amounts of vitamins and minerals, such as zinc and vitamin A, that should be included in each meal.
But the DfE said that an independent review of school food commissioned by the Government and led by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent of the Leon restaurant chain, concluded that these regulations were difficult for schools to understand.
As part of their review, Mr Dimbleby and Mr Vincent considered concerns raised by campaigners - including TV chef Jamie Oliver - that academies and free schools have been exempted from strict nutritional guidelines that apply to other state schools.
The review, published in 2013, found that while there was no widespread evidence that these schools were departing from the regulations, ''it is wise to have some sort of safety net in place'' and called for new food standards for all schools.
Mr Simmonds said that the "loophole" was a particular concern due to the introduction of universal free dinners for infants in England - a £1 billion initiative introduced last September.
According to the LGA's analysis, there are 1,789 primary academies, collectively teaching 540,000 pupils that do not have to sign up to the new standards.
"It is a particular worry given that for the many children who receive free school meals, lunch is often their main meal of the day," he said.
"Councils are responsible for the challenge of tackling obesity and poor diet as part of our public health responsibilities and we do not want to see junk food on the menu in any school."
A Department for Education spokesman said: "Parents rightly expect every school to serve children a healthy lunch.
"We are pleased that many academies that opened between 2010 and 2014, including some of the largest academy chains, have already signed up to the new school food standards, and expect others to do so.
"The standards not only improve the food pupils eat but also make it easier for school cooks to devise nutritious, tasty and varied menus. This will help children concentrate through the school day."