The government is being urged to put packed lunches at the heart of its childhood obesity agenda after a study found that only 1.6% of lunch boxes in England's primary schools are meeting nutritional standards.

A Barrow childcare manager has confirmed that if children are introduced to healthy and nutritional foods earlier then they will grow up to enjoy a better balanced diet.

Research found that the quality of young children's lunchboxes has only improved by 0.5% in the last 10 years, despite the best efforts of healthy TV chefs such as Jamie Oliver.

Experts are now calling for packed lunch policies to be introduced to cut down on the amount of unhealthy foods, such as crisps, chocolate biscuits and sugary drinks being brought into schools.

The thought of a 'packed lunch police' might have some parents bristling with indignation, but childhood obesity is now at an all time high and serious measures must be taken.

Jo Nicholas, head of research at the Children's Food Trust, said packed lunches were contributing to the country's child obesity problem and the Trust was "disappointed" not to see packed lunch policies in the Government's childhood obesity strategy.

Some childcare facilities already have rules on what children can bring in for their lunches and snacks. In Barrow, both Hollingarth and The Old Vicarage day nurseries have strict rules on what is allowed and what is banned in childrens' snack boxes.

The children at The Old Vicarage Day Nursery, Hartington Street, Barrow are aged between three months and four years and staff are already trying their best to teach them how to maintain a healthy diet. Childcare manager Gaile Cooke said: "We do not allow any chocolate, sweets or fizzy drinks in the snack boxes the children bring in to nursery.

"If parents pack chocolate or a sugary drink we just leave them in the child's bag and provide a healthier alternative ourselves, such as a banana.

"Nursery age is when children are discovering what they like to eat and it is not their responsibility to make their own snacks or lunches so it is down to the parents to make sure they get the proper nutrition they need. It is all about educating children young about what is healthy."

The study, which was commissioned by Flora, was carried out as a follow-up to a study in 2006. The researchers who conducted the study at the University of Leeds found that lunchboxes continued to be filled with high levels of saturated fats, sugars and salts, with only one in five containing any vegetables or salad.

Of all the lunchboxes examined, less than 20% met the standards for energy, vitamin A, or zinc and only 26% met the standard for iron.

Between 52% and 60% of the packed lunches contained too many sweet and savoury snacks, while 46% included sugary drinks. Mrs Cooke said: "We would never allow drinks like coca cola or lemonade and most of the parents like their children to have milk or water anyway, which we provide.

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"Children are told to bring in a lunch box with snacks for the morning and the afternoon. They don't need to bring anything for a midday meal as we provide that. The weekly menu is set by the Managing Director of the nursery and is all home cooked from scratch, incorporating fresh organic vegetables, and balanced amounts of carbohydrates and protein. For puddings we have a lot of fresh fruit and fromage frais.

"I think parents and educators definitely have a duty to educate children on the right things to eat because if you introduce good foods earlier then they will become the norm in their lives. They will grow up to understand the importance of eating well and enjoy healthier food because it is all they have known from an early age. This is important when tackling childhood obesity and keep teeth in good condition."



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