Children across Scotland face a postcode lottery in terms of the school meals being provided to them by their local councils – with some youngsters consuming more than the government-recommended daily fat, salt or sugar intake in a single serving.
An analysis of the nutritional value of school meals provided in Scotland’s local authority areas found that almost all sample menus provided by councils included food which exceeded the sugar, fat and sodium content limits set out by the Scottish Government.
Meanwhile, “junk food” such as chips, pizza and sausage rolls, while technically often meeting the minimum nutritional guidelines, is on offer in many schools on a daily basis, which food experts have warned “normalises” unhealthy food choices for children.
Of the 12 councils which offered a full breakdown of school meal nutritional values, all exceeded the government daily limits in one or more courses.
Meanwhile, a further ten provided nutritional information by average amounts over the course of a week’s menus through the “nutmeg” computer system, with five of those found to be breaking government guidelines over the course of a typical week.
Ten councils have not yet responded to requests for information.
An investigation by Scotland on Sunday found that some schools allow parents to pre-order their children’s food in advance, but others – even those in the same council area – give the pupils, some as young as five, free rein to decide what they eat while in the canteen, which experts say leaves youngsters open to choosing the unhealthier options on a regular basis.
Other mothers and fathers have told how children as young as five bin the healthy packed lunch they have been given, opting instead to take their place in the queue for the free school meals which their parents have deemed as too unhealthy for them to eat.
Edinburgh chef Mark Greenaway, who has appeared on the Great British Menu, said schools were laying the foundation for an unhealthy relationship with food in the years to come.
“This kind of food should just simply be removed from school menus,” he said. “Children should know from the start that school is not a place to eat junk food. There is no point in feeding them healthy food at home and laying the groundwork as all parents are constantly told they should do, then giving them sausage rolls, chips and beans every day at school.
“It normalises this kind of food as something they should eat everyday.”
Greenaway said that many school kitchens had lost the ability to cook fresh food from scratch.
Tayside Contracts, which operates the school meal contracts for Perth & Kinross, Angus and Dundee councils, publishes a recipe book for its cooks for each individual meal.
The instructions for its jumbo sausage roll – which it rates on its internal traffic light system as “red” for salt, fat and saturated fat – are as follows: “Cook from frozen. Place on a lightly greased baking tray in a pre-heated oven at 200C for 20mins.”
This menu item on its own exceeds the fat and saturated fat guidelines set out by the Scottish Government and provides more than half of the daily sodium limit.
Greenaway added: “The problem is that school kitchens have lost their skills and need to re-skill their staff to cook fresh food. It is not a budget problem.”
Some councils use the “nutmeg” scheme, which analyses the nutritional content of school meals against the Scottish Government guidelines. Yet, while the vast majority of councils technically meet requirements over a weekly period, individual meals are still often above the salt, fat and sugar content recommended per portion.
Other menus do not meet the minimum guidelines for nutrients and minerals such as iron. Clackmannanshire Council failed on the levels of iron it was providing on all of the weekly menu breakdowns provided.
Scottish Government guidelines published in 2008 stipulate that primary school pupils should not consume more than 745mg of sodium in their school meal and no more than 21.7g of fat – 6.8g of which should be saturates.
They should also consume no more than 16.3g of added sugars. All councils claim they meet the government guidelines on average, over the course of a week.
In some council areas, however, children can easily exceed the limits set by the government in a single day, often in a single portion.
Scottish nutritionist Polly Douglas said that the menus are often lacking in the benefits of good food, such as protein, iron and vitamins.
“The councils say they meet these nutritional standards on their websites, then you look at the menus and the children are being served link sausage, beans and chips,” she said. “My big bugbear with a lot of these foods is the lack of protein. When my daughter started school, they showed us some examples of what they ate in the canteen and there was just a pile of spaghetti with a blob of tomato sauce, a lettuce leaf and a glass of milk.
“It’s not always about what the food has in it, but what it doesn’t have in it.”
She added: “If the children are eating well at home, it is not as bad, but some will be eating these things there too.”
Often, there are alternatives available, such as lentil bolognese and a baked potato offered by Tayside Contracts on the day that a beefburger is also on the menu, but parents believe their children are unlikely to select the healthy option.
In 2012, nine-year-old schoolgirl Martha Payne, from Lochgilphead, created a blog in which she published pictures of her daily school meals and rated them. In response, Argyll and Bute Council announced that all students would be allowed unlimited servings of fruit, vegetables and bread.
Meanwhile, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has also campaigned to improve the nutritional quality of school meals, with the result that certain junk foods such as Bernard Matthews “Turkey Twizzlers” were banned from schools.
A spokeswoman for the National Parent Forum of Scotland said: “The National Parent Forum of Scotland encourages the provision of healthy, fresh, high quality food in schools. We welcomed the introduction of free school meals for P1-3 which was hoped to promote good nutritional choices.
“We would encourage national and local government, schools and parent councils to do more to engage with parents to promote the selection of healthy choices, the different options that are available and the nutritional standards that school meals are expected to meet.”
The price of school meals also varies greatly between councils, ranging from £1.50 per meal in South Lanarkshire to £2.30 in the Highlands. They are free for children in P1 to P3 across Scotland.
A report out last week from Queen Margaret University found that whilst packed lunches do include more fruit and veg – they also contain more fat, saturated fatty acids and sugars. However, they admitted that the diets of schoolchildren surveyed were “nutritionally poor”.
Meanwhile, a separate study from Children in Scotland claimed that the junk food diets of Scotland’s children was leading to a “national health crisis”.
Children in Scotland chief executive Jackie Brock said: “We welcome the fact that Scotland, unlike England and other countries, has excellent nutritional school meal standards in place. However, schools, like families, have a huge road to climb to encourage and retain the take-up by children and young people of healthy school meal food every day.
“In primary schools, children will often say they prefer a packed lunch not a school meal and parents give in and often provide a treat. In secondary schools, young people can leave school and seek alternatives.
“So, we sympathise with schools which aim to provide a balance but we need a society-wide effort to encourage, support and role-model making healthy eating choices among our children.
“Also, as the Scottish Government’s guidance Better Eating Better Learning suggests, it’s not just about providing healthy food – creating a sociable environment to enjoy your school meal and encourage children to get involved in planning menu choices will create a successful approach to increasing healthy eating choices among children in schools.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Government said that school menus should be planned so that over the school week the food and drink available average out to meet government standards and should include a variety of meals to allow children to make “healthy choices” about what they eat.
He said: “All local authorities have a duty to provide school meals that meet strict nutritional requirements ensuring that pupils are offered balanced and nutritious school lunches.”
A spokesman for Cosla, which represents 28 or Scotland’s 32 councils said: “Let’s be realistic. Salt and sugar is a problem across all food and in no way restricted simply to school meals.
“Scotland’s councils are committed to providing on a daily basis, as nutritious a meal as is possible for all children and do a good job in achieving this objective.”
He added: “The process of procurement of good quality food for school meals is reviewed regularly.”
The facts about canteen menus
On Fridays, in West Lothian, youngsters are given a packed lunch which includes a sandwich containing 593mg of sodium, as well as an option of “homebaking”, which has a typical sodium content of 115mg and cheese and biscuits which have a sodium content of 338mg, giving a total value of 1,046mg (well over the 745mg recommended).
A breakdown of a typical weekly menu at East Renfrewshire council showed it exceeds the Scottish Government’s sodium guidelines for both secondary and primary age children, while both the cheesy pasta and vegetable pasta dishes served to schoolchildren by Edinburgh Council exceed the 6.8g of saturated fat content on their own, with 7.4g of saturated fat in a single dish.
Aberdeenshire Council provides a dessert of a butterscotch cookie and a milkshake, which together provide 29.3g of sugars, while at schools in the Edinburgh Council area, a single portion of lemon sponge cake alone includes 21.1g of added sugars – both well above the 16.3g government limit.
Meanwhile, in Fife schools, one portion of ice cream exceeds the sugar limit set by the Scottish Government, coming in at 18.7g of sugar – and also accounts for half of a child’s recommended saturated fat intake for the school day, while another dessert provided by Aberdeenshire schools, iced banana gingerbread, also exceeds the sugar limit by more than 2g.
Two desserts provided by Argyll & Bute contain 34g of sugar – more than twice the recommended limit.
Some councils, including Aberdeen City and East Lothian, offer free water and milk to their students – but also provide an option of free fruit juice, which many nutritionists believe is detrimental due to its high sugar content. In many council areas, children are offered flavoured milks such as chocolate or strawberry which contain added sugars.
In many schools, chocolate and strawberry milk – which include added sugar – are provided as standard drinks.
At East Dunbartonshire Council, ice cream is available for pupils every day, while fruit-based cake and custard are on the menu twice a week.
In some councils, including East Ayrshire, crisps are on offer in primary and secondary school at breaktime, for an additional cost of 50p, while home baking is also on sale.
Councils which exceed limits set out by the Scottish Government are: Glasgow, Edinburgh, Fife, South Lanarkshire, Aberdeenshire, Highland, West Lothian, Dundee, Perth and Kinross, Angus, East Dunbartonshire, East Lothian, Argyll and Bute, East Renfrewshire, Midlothian, Clackmannanshire.
Councils which have provided average information which meets Scottish Government guidelines over the course of a week: Dumfries and Galloway, East
Ayrshire, South Ayrshire, Moray, West Dunbartonshire and Stirling.
Councils which have not responded to requests for information or have not yet returned an FOI: North Lanarkshire, Aberdeen, Falkirk, North Ayrshire, Renfrewshire, Scottish Borders, Western Isles, Shetland Isles and Orkney Isles.
Case study one: ‘Pizza is my favourite’
Bea Dalton-Hopwood, seven, is in P3 at Broomhill Primary School in Glasgow. She eats school lunches every day.
“I really like most of the food we eat at school, although there are a few things I don’t like. We have things like lasagne, meatball subs, pizza and fish fingers. Pizza is my favourite, but I think it is everyone’s favourite. When it is on the menu it goes really quickly and if you are on second bell (second sitting), it runs out and you have to have something else. We get to choose every day what we want ourselves.
“We don’t get it too much, usually about once a week. I don’t think the food is too unhealthy, but if it was really healthy all of the time I wouldn’t like it. There are healthy options, like apples and yoghurt for pudding. We learn a lot about healthy eating at school.
“They don’t usually give us unhealthy puddings, just occasionally as a treat.
“I like having school meals because my friends do. My brother has packed lunches because he is very fussy. Sandwiches every day would be boring and don’t taste as nice as the food we get at school. Also, I like having a hot meal at lunchtime, it’s tastier.”
Case study two: ‘The choices are awful’
Louise Menzies, from Glasgow, said her six-year-old daughter, Zoe, chooses junk food every day – binning the healthy packed lunches she provides for her.
“The choices are awful and there is always fast food on the menu which, needless to say, the kids will choose.
“In my daughter’s school the children are allowed to choose their own food and it’s ludicrous, as even if there is a healthy choice, what kid is ever going to pick a salad over a burger, no matter how much you try to educate them?
“I talk about healthy food all the time with her and what makes a healthy choice and still find out she has had a burger every day.
“Why give five and six- year-olds this choice?
“Or, at least the staff could ensure they don’t bin their packed lunches and then join the dinner queue. It’s a constant battle in my house. Zero nutrition.
“Don’t get me wrong, I value and appreciate the free school meals, but there must be better options than the current supplier who can’t do better than pizza and burgers.”