A CYNICAL ploy to try to win votes or the right thing to do at the right time to do it. The Scottish Government’s decision to give all Scottish children free school meals from P1 to P3 has divided political opinion this week.
Critics said Scotland was too slow to follow England, where the move was made last year, but Alex Salmond insisted it was part of a wider range of child welfare reforms, designed specifically for Scotland.
Whatever the argument, most parents were delighted, as the scheme is set to save families £330 per child each year. The universal introduction eliminates the problem of the stigma attached to free school meals. From next January, when the scheme is introduced, every Scottish child will be equal in the lunch queue.
Over and above that, free school meals have the potential to improve the health and well-being of youngsters as well as raising their educational achievements.
But for that to happen, free meals are only part of the picture. This scheme is an opportunity, but not an end in itself.If youngsters have three years of misery meals that sends them racing to the chip shop on the first day of P4, then £114 million will have been wasted.
Instead, this must be seen as an opportunity to inculcate a love of school food and its culture that makes it a mainstay of their education.
To do that requires serious change. We need to get away from the tyranny of choice. We are obsessed with giving children as many options as possible so even the fussiest eater can find a brown rice and treacle combination to keep them happy.
Instead, we should move to the model adopted in other European countries, where only a couple of mainstream, wholesome choices are offered yet meal uptake is much higher.
The cost of a school meal in Scotland can vary from £1.40 to £2.10 depending where you live. That needs to be changed in favour of a standard cost across the country which makes it easier to compare standards and nutrition.
We need to better support school catering staff and offer them proper training and development opportunities. And we need to ensure procurement procedures allow them to buy local produce and cook meals that are fresh and good for the kids.
Above all, we need to make school meals a pleasurable experience for children. Glasgow’s Fuel Zone canteens sum up an approach that makes school lunches little more than a pit stop. We should instead be investing in dining halls filled with food education messages where teachers sit and eat with pupils and help them understand more about making good food choices.
This week’s announcement is a great step forward, but there is a long road ahead to give our children the school meals they deserve.