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Free school meals plan worth look

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 29/07/2015

There have been many campaigns launched to promote a healthier diet, especially among children, but they have not worked in changing eating habits
There have been many campaigns launched to promote a healthier diet, especially among children, but they have not worked in changing eating habits

There have been many campaigns launched to promote a healthier diet, especially among children, but they have not worked in changing eating habits. A shocking one in four children aged 2-10 years is now classified as overweight or obese, a figure that has moved little in the last decade.

It is obvious that a radically different approach is needed if we are not to see generations of young people grow up and develop the sorts of health problems associated with unhealthy diets.

The British Medical Association has come up with a challenging idea. It wants all children in primary schools here up to P3 to be given free school meals.

The BMA's argument, which appears compelling, is that a nutritious school meal each day to every young person up to the age of seven will teach them good eating habits and may even persuade them to badger their parents into providing similar food at home, thus benefiting the whole family.

The free meals - allied to a fruit and vegetable scheme that would give each child a portion of fruit and vegetables each day - would follow similar initiatives already introduced in England. In 2013 the coalition Government at Westminster pledged to give all primary school children free meals and money was also available for the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to follow suit.

Funding, as with most things in these economically straitened times, could be the nub of the problem in Northern Ireland.

Only around one in four children in the province is entitled to free school dinners at present, meaning that if this benefit became universal it would entail a huge additional bill for the Department of Education.

The equation in health terms is simple. Doctors believe that improving the diet of young people now will mean that they will not require the same level of intervention by the health service in later life, thus saving significant sums of money.

It would take a particularly skilled actuary to work out if the annual cost of free school meals for youngsters aged up to seven would be recouped in the longer term by less demand on the health service. The problem is that politicians seldom look that far ahead. Convincing Stormont to introduce this scheme, despite its obvious health gains, could be a difficult task.

Belfast Telegraph

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