Fight East End’s obesity by locking kids in school at lunchtime

TIM Archer has a vision to make the children of the East End grow up healthy. More of our 10-year-olds are obese than almost anywhere in the country.

So the chairman of Tower Hamlets Council’s health scrutiny panel has come up with a radical solution—give all youngsters free school dinners, even the rich kids, and lock them in at lunchtime:

LIFE expectancy can vary by up to 10 years, depending on whereabouts in the East End you live. It’s a bit of a ‘postcode lottery’.

Perhaps the most concerning is childhood obesity, which if left unchecked will consign future generations to a lifetime of poor health and the social problems that go with it—poverty, low attainment at school and unemployment.

A quarter of our 10-year-olds are obese. That makes Tower Hamlets the second-worst area of the country for childhood obesity. Children who are obese are more likely to become obese adults with a higher risk of developing illnesses such as diabetes or heart disease.

I have just led a review into how we can reduce childhood obesity which I have presented to Tower Hamlets council’s cabinet.

We listened to health professionals from NHS Tower Hamlets as part of the investigation and those in education.

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But perhaps the most insightful input came from parents—there is too much temptation for their youngsters to eat junk food, they told us.

We need to tighten our local planning controls, for a start, to stop the concentration of fast-food outlets near our schools.

We could extend the ‘polluter pays’ concept—places causing our streets to be polluted with rubbish paying for clearing it up.

But another option is free meals for all pupils. About seven-out-of-10 children in Tower Hamlets are already eligible for free school dinners.

Sadly, there are 10,000 pupils who don’t take up the offer. Perhaps, even in Tower Hamlets, there is still a stigma attached to free school meals.

That’s why I suggest we offer a free meal to every child and pay for the 30 per cent of children who aren’t eligible. That way, I’m convinced most children will eat a school dinner and get at least one healthy meal a day.

Neighbouring Newham offers all children free school meals and has ‘take up’ rates of up to 98 per cent.

This does come with a cost and I’m not suggesting this should be rolled out nationally.

What is right for a deprived East End is not necessary good value in Tunbridge Wells.

The current cost estimate is �6 million a year. To put that into context, Tower Hamlets spends �8m a year on renting Anchorage House, a half empty office block next to the Town Hall.

Our schools also have unspent surpluses of �30m sitting in their bank accounts—so they could actually afford to do this themselves, if they chose to.

They also need to do more to cajole and encourage pupils to eat a school dinner.

So let’s close the school gates at lunchtime. It would mean going down the chip shop or burger takeaway is not an option.

But we need to lead by example. Our own vending machines in the Town Hall are stocked with crisps and chocolate. How healthy is that?

They should have healthy options—that would be a start.