Laura Stewart: It is vital we are able to trust school food quality

The number of children eating five or more portions of fruit and veg increased by 28 per cent in primary schools taking part in  the English Food for Life Partnership initiative. Picture: Chris Radburn/PA
The number of children eating five or more portions of fruit and veg increased by 28 per cent in primary schools taking part in the English Food for Life Partnership initiative. Picture: Chris Radburn/PA
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The ongoing horsemeat scandal, which has now affected a cluster of Edinburgh primary schools, is a timely reminder that the food served in our schools must be food we can trust.

Parents, quite rightly, are calling for reassurance about where their children’s food comes from. The Soil Association’s Food for Life catering mark addresses the issues at the heart of the horsemeat scandal – the importance of traceability and food provenance, and our increasing reliance on processed food.

The award’s bronze, silver and gold tiers encourage caterers to make step-by-step changes towards using more local, seasonal, organic and high animal welfare produce. At least 75 per cent of dishes on the menu must be freshly prepared and all meat must be farm assured using schemes such as Quality Meat Scotland, ensuring it is traceable back to the farm.

More than 73,000 catering mark meals are served across the UK every day, including more than 25,000 in Scotland. In fact, catering mark meals are now served in one in seven of Scotland’s primary schools. But as scandals such as “horsegate” demonstrate, it has never been more important for caterers and consumers to be able to trust the quality of our food and understand where it comes from.

Improving school food doesn’t have to cost the Earth, and many caterers have been able to make the changes within their existing budgets. And where there is a will, there is certainly a way. A number of local authorities are already pioneering the Catering Mark for their primary school meals; East Lothian Council, Highland Council and Stirling Council have the bronze catering mark and North Ayrshire Council and East Ayrshire Council have achieved the prestigious gold award.

In North Ayrshire, more than 80 per cent of dishes are freshly prepared, menus are seasonal and include organic produce, milk from South West Scotland and free range eggs. In Highland Council, one of the first local authorities to achieve the bronze award for its 177 primary schools, fresh, local ingredients, including some organic lettuce, provide an extra level of 

It’s not just schools leading the way; the University of Edinburgh has become the first university in Scotland to achieve the bronze Catering Mark for food served at the John McIntyre Conference Centre at Pollock Halls of Residence and in another Scotland first, South Lanarkshire Council has become the first catering provider to achieve the award for their community meals service.

In Edinburgh, an ambitious three-year project, the Edinburgh Food for Life Partnership, has has seen the University of Edinburgh, of Edinburgh City Council and NHS Lothian join forces to transform food culture by going for the Catering Mark in selected sites, including Currie High School and Buckstone Primary School.

As has been demonstrated by the Soil Association’s work with schools and caterers down south, improving the food we serve in schools not only benefits local communities but, when coupled with effective food education initiatives, can have a direct impact on young people’s food 
habits. A social return on investment study has demonstrated that for every £1 spent on Food for Life menus, £3 goes back into the local economy, mostly in the form of new jobs. And perhaps even more importantly for parents, the number of children eating five or more portions of fruit and veg increased by 28 per cent in primary schools that were taking part in the English Food for Life Partnership initiative and free school meal take-up increased by an average of 13 per cent.

The Food for Life Scotland project is harnessing a growing pool of support from Edinburgh’s key institutions and the wider community. Recently, a motion was supported by Edinburgh City Council to look at what measures can be taken to expand the Catering Mark to more schools across the city. Those caterers working on achieving the Catering Mark in schools need to be supported by a whole school approach to better food culture, with an emphasis on food education, improved dining and cooking facilities. This requires partnerships within local authorities as well as the political will to make these changes.

Horsemeat or no horsemeat, at the Soil Association we believe everyone has a right to food they can trust. We want to help people choose food that is good for them and good for the planet. The Food for Life Catering Mark offers a framework for caterers and a guarantee for consumers. We look forward to working with Edinburgh City Council and caterers across the country to increase efforts to provide fresh, healthy, seasonal and 
sustainable food.

• Laura Stewart is director of Soil Association Scotland