Free school dinners move to end East End’s child obesity

MOVES are being made for every pupil to have free school dinners in the battle against rampant child obesity in London’s deprived East End—said to be one of the worst in the country.

Youngsters would be locked in at lunchtime to stop them nipping out to nearby chip shops and burger takeaways, if the plan goes ahead.

They would all be entitled to free lunches—even the richer kids—to end the stigma of ‘hand out food’ in the school dining hall and encourage healthier lifestyle.

But the move would cost Tower Hamlets Council another �6 million at a time when the authority faces Government cuts of �80 million over the next four years, its cabinet has been told.

“A fifth of all children in the East End aged four to five are obese,” Opposition Tory Cllr Tim Archer told a shocked council cabinet meeting.

“We are London’s fifth worst borough for obesity among five-year-olds and 10th worst among 10-year-olds.”

His move comes after an investigation by the authority’s health scrutiny panel.

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Cllr Archer, who chairs the panel, pointed out: “Two-thirds of our children are already entitled to free meals. We must act boldly to make sure the rest are treated the same.

“Closing the gates would also stop kids spending mum’s money on burgers and chips.”

But there was doubt that the authority could push the measures through. Its director of Children and Schools services, Isobel Cattermole, said: “It’s difficult making 16- and 19-year-olds stay in school during the lunch time, while closing the gate is a matter for the schools themselves.”

The �6m bill could also prove a stumbling block to giving all pupils free dinners. But Cllr Archer believes there is enough ‘loose change’ the schools themselves are holding.

“They have �13m surplus between them,” he told the East London Advertiser. “They must be asked to contribute, because free meals would make the biggest single difference to our child obesity crisis.”

Mayor Lutfur Rahman has been urged to look into the idea, despite his own reservations.

Her said later: “We can’t touch the schools’ surplus funds, whatever Cllr Archer comes up with.

“It’s up to the schools if they want to use their cash surplus—not us.”

Obese children are more likely to become obese adults and be at greater risk of diabetes and heart disease later in life, the scrutiny panel’s report warns.

The scale of the problem is said to be “alarming”—with one-in-seven children aged four to five and one-in-four aged 10 to 11 in the East End now obese, according to Tower Hamlets Primary Care Trust statistics.