SCHOOL meals that cost just 35p to make in Wales could be costing children their health, an influential report says today.
Experts claim a "cheap food" culture and regulations which force local authorities to operate "competitive" school meals services have eroded the nutritional value of school dinners, helping to fuel the obesity epidemic in children.
And they believe that a more sustainable approach to public procurement for school meals, using locally produced fresh ingredients, will not only help to reduce diet-related health problems - which cost the NHS £4bn a year - but provide a much-needed lifeline for struggling rural communities.
One of the report's authors, Professor Kevin Morgan, director of the Regeneration Institute at Cardiff University, said, "School meals could cost children their health.
"The school meals service needs to be better resourced for the simple reason that it's an investment, not just a cost - an investment in health and wellbeing. Does it make sense to invest a little more money in school meals today to save a lot more money in health bills tomorrow?"
During the past 20 years the school meals system in Wales and the rest of the UK has had its budgets squeezed leading to an over-reliance on frozen, pre-prepared and processed foods at the expense of fresh, locally produced foods - creating a "cheap food" culture.
Earlier this year The Western Mail reported how the average cost of a school dinner was just 35p. Catering staff have also been cut and just a few large food suppliers are now used to reduce costs.
The emphasis of school meals is no longer on nutrition and choice but on low cost, the School Meals: Healthy Eating and Sustainable Food Chains report claims.
These changes not only affect local suppliers and school catering staff, but also the very health of the children eating school lunches.
Research in Wales has suggested that four pre-teens in 10 are overweight and at least one of those is now obese.
"Children's diets are very poor at the moment with lots of chocolate and crisps," said Dr Julien Baker, a lecturer in health and exercise science at the University of Glamorgan.
"Obesity is a real concern. Look at the USA, they have massive problems. We are following the USA very closely."
The trend means that children as young as five are sowing the seeds for diabetes and heart disease later in life.
Prof Rhys Williams, a leading diabetes expert at Swansea University, said, "Cheap food is one element in the trend of increased childhood obesity.
"That has got consequences for the kids right now in terms of quality of life. But there are long-term consequences too, including diabetes and heart disease."
Almost £1bn is spent by children every year on school meals - not counting the £433m spent on food and drink consumed on the way to and from school.
Dr Baker added, "The old tuck shop habit, and peer pressure not to eat healthy fruit, is still around in Wales. Kids are happy to spend their money on sugary snacks."
For many children, the daily school lunch, which costs about £1.65, will be the only square meal they eat all day.
"Most parents would be surprised to discover that of the total price, a mere 35p is the average amount spent per child on the food itself," said Prof Morgan.
"Although 35p is nowhere near enough to provide a truly nutritious meal, most local authority caterers perform a minor miracle daily by making these meagre resources go a long way."
The National Assembly for Wales has launched a new nutrition strategy but many, including the Local Authority Caterers Association, believe it lags behind the Scottish Executive which is investing £63.5m in school meals after developing national nutritional standards.
Prof Morgan and co-author Adrian Morley believe that for school lunches to improve for the health of Wales' children, not only must more money be invested in the service, but it must also become part of a more sustainable approach to public procurement.
Peter Williams at the Farmers' Union of Wales said, "We have been advocating this for years. We hope the National Assembly and local authorities ensure quality local produce is used in Welsh schools."
SCHOOL dinners in Carmarthenshire have been praised as some of the best in the UK.
But they could be under threat because of perverse rules that value cost over quality.
The county's catering service uses as much food from local suppliers as possible and does above average amount of cooking from raw ingredients, rather than relying on processed and pre-prepared foodstuffs.
Primary school staff working in the county have played a pro-active role in converting children to healthy eating habits and it has the highest take-up rate for school lunches in Wales.
Prof Kevin Morgan said Carmarthenshire Council was doing "everything health promoting schools should do".
But its catering service was criticised by Best Value inspectors for being a "high quality, high cost" service and was forced to become more "competitive" by adopting standardised practices.