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iSociety: Schools' battle with the food vans

Amid all the talk of fizzy drink taxes and more surgery for weight loss, one of the demands made by The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AMRC), has already been delivered in Scotland, sort of.

In their report this week, doctors called for councils to have the power to limit the number of fast food outlets near schools.

In fact, Glasgow City Council first introduced a ban on mobile food vans operating within 300m of its schools in 2009.

The only problem is, it doesn't seem to work - a recent paper presented to the Children' and families Policy Committee warned councillors: "mobile vans continue to operate in close proximity to schools."

The council also carried out a survey of the food pupils at five schools were eating when they went outside the school gates at lunch-time.

Three of the schools were surrounded by a heavy concentration of outlets including chip shops, kebab shops, bakeries, sandwich shops and supermarkets. Competition was fierce and many of the shopkeepers were actively targeting pupils with marketing gimmicks. There were more than 30 outlets within 10 minutes walk of one school.

The food on offer, unsurprisingly, was poor. Given that it consisted of largely of chips in bread rolls, chips with cheese, pizza and chips or a sausage roll, supplemented with fizzy drinks, crisps and sweets, you hardly need the council's analysis to tell you that more than half of the samples analysed exceeded recommended fat, salt and energy intakes.

"These findings are of great concern", director of Education Maureen McKenna added.

The dilemma, though, is what do you do about it? Depressingly, any marketing that schools do of healthier options seems likely to be blown away by the multiple advertising messages promoting other options to children, not to mention the signs in the chip shop window promising cheap deals on chips and a can for schoolchildren.

The council has experimented successfully with a 'stay on site' initiative The Big Eat In, which now covers more than half of the city's 30 secondary schools, encouraging S1 pupils to stay in to eat a healthy lunch and take part in activities.

This is a great idea, but how much impact it can have is unclear. Ms McKenna notes that "encouragement rather than enforcement" is most popular with pupils.

Perhaps the most interesting comment in Glasgow's analysis is the criticism the report makes of Scottish Government nutritional guidelines.

School caterers find it almost impossible to square the guidelines with actually producing food kids want to eat.

"Many other European countries have achieved successful healthy school food policies ... without recourse to such detailed legislation." the committee was told.

But without a cultural shift (or a better climate?), will we always struggle to emulate them?

Not long ago I was at a gala held by the People's Postcode Lottery, which highlighted some of the projects and charities funded by lottery ticket sales.

It wasn't first and foremost a fundraising event, but any fundraisers present would have been in no doubt about the highlight of the night.

Dame Ellen MacArthur's presentation midway through the evening was extraordinary by any standards.

The former solo round-the-world yachtswoman now heads a charity, the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust, which is extending its reach with a new hub at Largs, so that it can offer Scottish children affected by cancer the chance to experience sailing trips.

Speaking at the event without notes, she held the audience gripped with a short talk - perhaps 12 minutes - during which she described the excitement, dread and isolation of a near capsize, thousands of miles from the nearest help, then explained why the courage of a child facing cancer is so much more admirable than her own. She tied all this into the purpose of the charity and a description of the life-changing benefits sailing has had for some of the children the charity has helped. In a short space of time she built an unanswerable case for her cause.

Perhaps she's given the talk many times before, but it didn't feel like that - it felt immediate, unscripted and sincere.

As I say, it wasn't an event at which people were expected to reach for their chequebooks. But within minutes of her sitting down, Dame Ellen's charity had secured two unsolicited contributions totalling £15,000. If you could bottle whatever she's got, I can imagine most charities would buy a crateful.

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