Stephen Jardine: Source of obesity crisis is just outside school gates

School meals are healthier than ever before but the key is to keep pupils away from temptation at lunchtime
School meals are healthier than ever before but the key is to keep pupils away from temptation at lunchtime
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I don’t remember much about school lunches but in summary, main courses were just about edible and we only had chips once a week. Puddings were better but the lunch hall was so institutional that at the first opportunity, I opted out.

Lunch became a cheese salad roll and a packet of crisps from the local bakers. It wasn’t healthy but it could have been worse. Just how much worse, I discovered this week.

It’s over 30 years since I left school and since then an awful lot has changed. Following the launch of Hungry for Success in 2003, food served in schools has had to meet significantly higher standards.

That was further developed by the Schools Act of 2007 which requires each school catering service to produce a balanced, nutritious menu over the course of a week. Sweets and fizzy drinks are banned but the menu does reflect modern food culture with wraps and finger foods instead of meat and two veg.

The latest Government initiative on school food came in 2014. Better Eating, Better Learning provides a new context for school food in Scotland and raises the bar higher.

At the time Scotland’s then Chief Medical Officer explained why school meals matter.

“Poor nutrition and a limited palate in early childhood are factors in the continuing health problems presented by obesity, diabetes and heart disease”, he said.

So feed a child badly and the adult pays the price for that. Despite all the progress, there are still blips along the way as the 2012 fiasco with Argyll schoolgirl Martha Payne proved. Her school meals blog attracted millions of followers to a miserable catalogue of trays of pizza, jelly and ice lollies. Even that has now gone.

Nowadays Argyll is just one of the educational areas awarded the Soil Association’s Food for Life catering mark which guarantees fresh, tasty food free from additives in hundreds of Scottish schools.

So school children are sorted. Every day they can eat food that is well made and good for them and for the first three years at primary school, they even get it for free. Job done.

Except it’s not. This week I was walking past my old school, and something caught my eye. The takeaway just across the road had a “Schools Special” menu outside. Alongside the predictable chips with gravy and square sausage roll, it offered up a Double Decker Potato Scone. After five years writing this column and having travelled and eaten far and wide, not much surprises me in the world of food and drink but this did. It turns out to be two potato scones sandwiched around cheddar cheese with the whole thing then deep fried. And the school kids love it.

Here in one school lunch snack is the reason why, despite all the best efforts of the school catering service, over 30 per cent of children aged 2 to 15 are overweight or obese.

The answer lies in our own hands. Time after time local authorities in Scotland have attempted to restrict junk food being sold to children outside the school gates. In May East Ayrshire Council had to abandon a ban on fast food vans operating near schools after traders went to court. North Lanarkshire Council also tried and failed.

The next step has to be the Scottish Government making changes to licensing legislation to give local authorities the powers they need. If that fails, there is an ultimate answer to the problem.

If food is good inside school and bad outside, just close the school gates. Why are we allowing children out of school to eat when the Double Decker Potato Scone is out there?

To those who believe this would infringe their personal freedom, what about the personal freedom not to be fat and sick when old due to choices made when young? That is a real human right.