Is it time to give Jamie a call as lunches become a real hot potato?
Too many Irish pupils are eating junk while their French counterparts have five-course dinners, says Kim Bielenberg
Irish schools should do more to provide nutritious lunches and ban unhealthy food from vending machines, according to a leading health campaigner.
Maureen Mulvihill, Health Promotion Manager with the Irish Heart Foundation, said: "Children are spending five days a week in school, but in many cases their diet is poor.
"We need to move towards a model that you have in other countries where pupils have a hot nutritious meal in the middle of the day.''
In other words, it may be time to call for Jamie Oliver as the quality of lunches eaten by Irish schoolchildren becomes a hot potato.
The charismatic TV chef launched a campaign six years ago to improve the quality of British school lunches, but in most Irish schools there are no hot dinners provided at all.
Research on the Jamie Oliver campaign in the Greenwich area of London by the University of Essex seem to indicate that it had a positive effect on academic performance.
According to The Times Educational Supplement, results showed an 8pc improvement in Science and 6pc in English in Greenwich. Absence due to ill health dropped by 15pc.
Irish parents can only look on in envy at the meals provided by schools in other countries.
While Irish second-level pupils commonly make do on sausage rolls, crisps and fizzy drinks, hurriedly bought from local convenience stores, their French counterparts sit down to eat the sort of dinners that would not look out of place in a chi-chi bistro.
A typical French school dinner might include an appetiser, salad, main course, cheese plate, and dessert. The meals are subsidised and cost the pupil's parents around €3 each.
Elaborate meals are also provided in countries such as Spain, Sweden and Finland.
By contrast, the sight of overweight Irish schoolchildren queuing for fast food at lunchtime is a familiar one. Alternatively they may bring their own lunchboxes or pick up snacks from a school vending machine.
The Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald attracted headlines when she announced that a ban on fast-food outlets near schools was being considered by the Government.
She said she was in discussions with the Department of Environment to see if planning regulations could be introduced to stop fast-food businesses operating near schools.
However this proposed ban is widely seen as impractical. It is unlikely to have any effect on existing outlets, and a restriction on future openings would not have any short-term effect.
Maureen Mulvihill of the Irish Heart Foundation said the Government needs to look at the food being eaten by pupils in school.
"One of our concerns would be about the lack of regulation of vending machines,'' she said. "In 2005 the National Taskforce on Obesity called for a code of practice for vending machines in schools.''
Research by the Irish Heart Foundation in 2007 indicated that almost half of post-primary schools had vending machines.
Two years ago, a report on School Food Initiatives by the all-Ireland body, Healthy Food For All said: "Studies of children's eating habits show an increasing reliance on high-fat and/or high-sugar snacks and drinks, and fruit and vegetable intakes fall far short of recommended levels.''
Some of the nutrition problems are, of course, beyond the control of schools
Most worryingly, the Healthy Food For All report noted that one-in-five Irish children went to bed hungry because there was no food in the home and 16pc never ate a breakfast on weekdays.
A recent survey of pupils of Inchicore Mercy School in Dublin found that 76pc of students questioned did not usually eat breakfast at home before going to school.
Healthy Food For All aims to reduce food poverty through community initiatives. It encourages the setting up of breakfast clubs and lunches in disadvantaged schools.
Sinead Keenan, project co-ordinator of Healthy Food for All, said there were many positive food initiatives in schools.
"We have found that breakfast clubs have improved performance in schools as well as attendance, because the students are ready for the school day.''
There are signs of improvement in diet at primary. Most primary schools in Ireland now offer healthy eating guidelines to parents and some impose strict regulations on children bringing junk food to school.
The Department of Agriculture has been funding a healthy-eating programme in primary schools since 2007 called Food Dudes.
Bord Bia supplies fruit and vegetables for an initial 16-day period, encouraging the children through a series of rewards and superhero stories to taste the foods. The children are then encouraged to bring their own fruit or vegetables to school in Food Dudes containers.
Cost and space limitations make the provision of Jamie Oliver-style hot lunches unlikely in most schools, at least in the short term.
However, Sinead Keenan said education authorities should plan for canteens and kitchen facilities in new schools.
"It is very important that in the future there are proper kitchens and spaces where students can eat meals.''