With the government getting tough on junk food in schools, where does the local retailer fit in? Ronan Hegarty investigates

There can be few more striking images of recent months than those of mothers sneaking burgers and chips through school railings to come to the aid of their poor offspring as they suffered Jamie Oliver's school dinners revolution.
The women were painted in the press as pariahs who didn't know what was good for their children. Indeed, it is hard to argue against the cause that Oliver has championed, that is to get kids eating more healthily. But it must have been a shock for those kids to arrive last September with all the usual excitement of a new term, only to find that their tuck shops resembled a greengrocers and the vending machines contained nothing more exciting than bottled water.
Changes in behaviour seldom happen overnight and kids, who are often incredibly resourceful, will find a way of getting their hands on the now contraband materials of fizzy pop, crisps and sweets.
So where does the local retailer fit in? There seems little point in banning so-called junk food in schools if kids are free to pick up what they like at the local
c-store, either on the way to or from school. So does the local retailer have a duty to assist the government with its campaign and, as small businesses struggling to survive in the face of a multiple invasion, sacrifice what are some of the most important impulse grocery categories?
Many retailers who believe they do have a role to play think that the government should be supporting them in their efforts. Yet a spokeswoman for the School Food Trust, the body set up by the government to transform school food and food skills to improve children's health and education, says that there is no official policy to bring owners of stores near schools into the loop in order to back up what is happening inside the school gates.
At present, the School Food Trust works with school cooks and caterers, head teachers and governors, as well as local authorities, to help in their bid to introduce new standards for school food over the next few years.
The spokeswoman adds that the trust would be interested in hearing about cases where schools and retailers are working together in order to help deliver the healthy eating message to children.
Sam McClean, a Spar retailer in Galgorm, Ballymena, is one of those retailers who believes that the government should be working with retailers to bring about change. Sam, with the backing of wholesaler the Henderson Group, has just run a successful sampling event in his store to give youngsters the opportunity to sample different kinds of fruit and learn about the importance of a balanced diet.
"We had about 30 kids in the store. Some of them really liked the fruit and some didn't. I don't think you are going to change attitudes overnight and I don't think it should be down to retailers to tell people what they should and shouldn't be eating," he explains.
"If we are going to get kids to make healthier choices, though, the government and local authorities should be running programmes to bring schools and local retailers together."
He points out that the kids involved in his promotion represented a small percentage of the schoolchildren in his area, as they came from a local playgroup. With greater government support, however, stores could work with a lot more kids.
It is not just the government that needs to bring retailers into the loop, according to Atul Sodha, a Londis retailer in Harefield, Middlesex. He believes suppliers of healthy snacks and fruit and veg need to do more in terms of promotions and convenient pack formats.
Atul argues that as a community retailer, he has a responsibility to provide healthy choices to his customers and do his bit to educate children on the benefits of improving their diet.
"I am a part of this community and a big part of running this business is building relationships with the kids and their parents, who are the ones spending the money," he adds.
Atul has already noticed the effect of the Jamie's School Dinners TV series and government campaign. He reports that some of the less healthy cheese snacks which are targeted at kids' lunchboxes have taken a dip in sales since September. He confirms: "What is happening in the media with Jamie Oliver will have an impact on people's habits."
He admits that snacking is a very important part of the convenience retailer's operation. "At the moment, market forces dictate that it is the big suppliers of crisps and fizzy drinks that have all the money to spend on promotions so you can't ignore that side of the business.
"However, there is a commercial advantage to be had from healthy snacks.
If we are not offering customers this choice then we are missing a trick. I'd rather they came into my store for these products than go down the road to Tesco. I would just like to see more of these suppliers deliver the sort of promotions that will go down well with my customers."
Atul has already taken the lead in promoting healthier products in his store. He ran an activity in conjunction with Whitworths, supplier of dried raisins and mixed fruits, in which some 120 local schoolchildren took part in a competition to design chefs' hats carrying a healthy eating message. The hats, which have slogans such as 'When in school, I'll obey the rules, no junk food for me', have been displayed in Atul's store and the kids can see their entries every time they come in.
Atul confirms: "I would do this again in a flash. The bottom line is that business has improved. I had never seen a lot of the mums and dads that came into the store with their kids before and now they are regular customers.
"Other retailers who read this article will want to know if there is a business reason for going down the healthy route and I can say that there definitely is."
perfect balance
He argues that it is all about balance and that retailers need to be in a position to offer a good mix of healthy snacks that parents feel comfortable with when buying on a regular basis for their kids, and more exciting treats that kids have become accustomed to.
It is still early days in re-educating kids about healthy eating, but as such this represents a great opportunity for retailers to get on board at the beginning of the movement.
Atul approached his local school independently in July and says the school jumped at the chance to become involved. There is no reason why this sort of thing can't be done across the country - of course, a bit of help from the powers
that be wouldn't go amiss.