Schools waging war on obesity

By Rebecca Sheppard and Patrick LowmanHEADTEACHERS and a council are waging war on children's unhealthy eating habits and expanding waistlines in an effort to avoid the "timebomb" of medical problems.

By Rebecca Sheppard and Patrick Lowman

HEADTEACHERS and a council are waging war on children's unhealthy eating habits and expanding waistlines in an effort to avoid the "timebomb" of medical problems.

There are 131 vending machines in 38 secondary schools in Suffolk dispensing snack food and drinks to pupils.

Now the county council has written to all the headteachers with vending machines in their schools in an effort to get them to replace chocolate, crisps and fizzy pop with cereal bars, dried fruit and bottled water.


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The move comes after experts warned the modern culture of youngsters bingeing on takeaway food and sugary drinks was leading to a dramatic rise in childhood obesity, which can lead to major health complications in later life.

One high school in Norfolk has already banned all fizzy drinks and sugary foods from its vending machines - which were reported to be earning the school £15,000 a year - and others have outlawed vending machines that make junk food easily accessible to pupils.

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New "healthier" vending machines are now being trialled in several schools in Suffolk and 26 schools in the county have been awarded "healthy school status".

Gerry Kiernan, vice-chairman of Suffolk County Council's learning for life overview and scrutiny committee, said schools, parents and companies all had a role to play in cracking down on obesity.

"The county council recognises that it has a responsibility for children and it wants to be a part of the solution," he added.

"I think it's better to make sure the information is right. Instead of banning schools selling things we should be helping children to understand - if they still want to buy chocolate, it's not hard to get hold of.

"They have to understand that it's all right eating whatever they want to as long as they do it in moderation.

"It's much more difficult for overweight or heavy children to participate in school and they suffer in school and throughout their whole lives. They have to realise that."

Suffolk County Council began the battle against the scourge of child obesity through the Suffolk Healthy Schools Programme, which involves 110 schools across the county.

It is hoped children will be convinced to take a new approach to healthy eating, which in the long term could reduce the rise in young obese people.

King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds has signed up to the scheme and was the first secondary school in west Suffolk to receive "healthy school status".

Headteacher Geoff Barton said: "All schools have a responsibility to educate their students about how their bodies work as well as how their brains work. I feel very passionately about this and the two are tied together.

"I think promoting healthy eating is one of the biggest challenges we face as a society. At the moment we are facing a timebomb and we are all going to pay the price in the future if we don't educate people to eat more healthily now."

The school has created a healthy eating café that can be used by all pupils and staff, where salads and pasta dishes are readily available.

The school council has also worked closely with kitchen staff to limit the amount of E numbers in its dinners and to provide more water outlets.

Vending machines offering nourishing foods such as dried fruits, cereals and bottled water have also been introduced and this year the school plans to introduce a healthy eating co-ordinator.

"We do not tell the children they ca not eat chocolate and fizzy drinks, but we try to teach then there is a choice," said Mr Barton.

"We can't force people to take on a healthier lifestyle, but we can educate them into making a more informed choice, which could improve their health.

"We will gain sports college status later this year, which will tie in with our healthy eating ethos, but I think this is an issue all schools must address to help provide a healthier life for the future generations."

A Suffolk County Council spokesman said healthy lifestyles, including healthy eating, were an integral part of the personal, social and health education curriculum for every child of a compulsory school age.

As well as attempting to educate children into healthier eating habits through the curriculum, the Suffolk County Catering Service is also playing a vital role in tackling the problem of obesity in school age children.

It has drawn up specific commitments to encourage improved eating habits in schools. These include reducing fat, sugar and salt intake through healthier recipes and cooking methods when preparing school dinners, and making more fresh fruit, vegetables and salads available.

The service is also offering a range of low fat and wholemeal grain products on improved school dinner menus and is working with manufacturers to provide healthier products available from vending machines.

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