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Doctors urge expansion of free school meal scheme

Doctors' leaders are calling for school meals to be given to all children aged four to seven

Doctors' leaders are calling for school meals to be given to all children aged four to seven in the north.

They are also urging that fruit and vegetable schemes, similar to those in England, should be implemented in the north.

With 10 per cent of children aged between two and 15 in Northern Ireland obese, and with a third of the UK population projected to be obese by 2030, a new report from the British Medical Association (BMA) - Food for Thought - highlights the need for comprehensive action to promote healthier diets, particularly among young people.

Only children whose parents are in receipt of certain benefits receive schools meals free of charge. The BMA said it wanted to see this extended to all children aged up to seven.

Schools in the north do not have to run fruit and vegetable schemes, and the BMA added that it wanted to see a scheme similar to the one in England introduced.

There has been a renewed focus on healthy eating among schoolchildren in light of recent budget cuts.

One of the biggest losers in the Department Education's budget this year was a fund to help schools tackle obesity and dental decay among children. Every penny of the £4.7 million nutritional standards, which inform schools about the foods they should serve, has been slashed.

New nutritional standards for lunches were made compulsory for all schools from September 2007. In April 2008 these were extended to include all other food and drinks provided in school including breakfast clubs, tuck shops and vending machines.

Dr Paul Darragh from the BMA's board of science said doctors were increasingly concerned about the impact of poor diet on patient health.

"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. Evidence suggests that universal provision of free school means is beneficial towards this," he said.

"Similarly, while people most people know you should eat five portions of fruit and vegetables every day, few actually do it.

"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 benefitting from it."

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