Jane Bradley: The benefits of meat-free Monday in schools

If children eat a vegetarian meal one day a week, there should be money left over for better school dinners, writes Jane Bradley.
Royal High primary school pupils tuck into lunch on Meat Free Monday (Picture: Ian Rutherford)Royal High primary school pupils tuck into lunch on Meat Free Monday (Picture: Ian Rutherford)
Royal High primary school pupils tuck into lunch on Meat Free Monday (Picture: Ian Rutherford)

As schools in Edinburgh launched ‘meat-free Mondays’, photographs were released of beaming children at the city’s Royal High Primary sitting around the lunch table.

“It was thumbs-up all round for Royal High Primary’s first @MeatFreeMonday,” the city council trumpeted. “Pupils tucked into veggie curry and Quorn hotdogs.”

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As a parent of a child who eats (some) school meals at an Edinburgh council-run school, the new initiative – which will see only vegetarian food provided every Monday throughout the local authority’s primary schools – came as something of a surprise. Not an unpleasant one, I have to say, I’m quite happy with a day – or more – of vegetarian food. It ticks the boxes in terms of reducing the amount of processed meat the children are eating, as well as tapping into growing environmental concerns surrounding meat consumption. It is a great initiative and will, no doubt, be followed by other council areas. Council officials will be equally delighted, I would expect, considering that a meal free of meat or fish is likely to be substantially cheaper than the “chicken dinner” (whether it will be a winner with my daughter still remains to be seen) on offer later in the week or the “Scottish beef pasta bolognese” on the menu next Thursday.

I hope that with this in mind, the powers-that-be are going to use the extra cash to upgrade the quality of the food they provide for our children. Anecdotally, many youngsters currently claim that foods they would relish at home are all but inedible at school. Of course, meals created in bulk are never going to rival mummy or daddy’s home cooking and we cannot expect them to. But an investigation I published in Scotland on Sunday a few years ago found that while Scottish school lunches largely meet Scottish Government requirements relating to salt, fat and sugar intake, there is actually not enough of the good stuff – low-fat protein or fresh, vitamin-packed vegetables. Meanwhile, those vegetables which are offered are overcooked and unappetising.

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The problem is that our expectations are too low. As I reported a few months ago, parents in France are up in arms that the meat given to their children is not organic and that the portions of the tartiflette and rare roast beef on offer in Parisian schools are not quite big enough to fill their tummies. If these French parents saw what Scottish children are eating, they would probably weep into their berets.

Of course, the council will come up against parental opposition to any kind of healthy eating changes. They already have. One reader of our sister paper, the Edinburgh Evening News, wrote in to express concerns that some people “actually can’t eat vegetables”, while another warned that their “children will go hungry” because they don’t like veg.

Indeed, in Edinburgh council’s official MFM launch-day photographs, none of the young kids pictured appeared to be tucking into anything resembling a veggie curry, with Quorn hot dogs definitely the flavour of the day, while at least two of them were eating packed lunches from home – Milkybar yoghurts and chocolate krispy cakes not being a standard part of provided school lunches, according to official menus. If they are going to go down the vegetarian route, they need to do so properly. One of my gripes with school meals has always been that they celebrate junk food. A hot dog on Monday, a pizza on Wednesday – these should not be seen as normal, everyday foods, whether made of processed meat or processed mycoprotein, as Quorn is.

I’ve always had a bit of an aversion to Quorn. It is not natural – it is highly processed (the firm’s bestesellers include “crispy nuggets” and Quorn sausages) and comes from fungus. Not “mushroom protein” as it once claimed, but from a highly treated substance which is somehow made to resemble the flavour of meat. Non-Quorn-heavy vegetarian food can be made healthily and cheaply, with the cost of a carrot, cumin and kidney bean burger developed by food writer Jack Monroe, who shot to fame after writing a column which costed out her budget meals, coming in at as little as 17p each.

With that in mind and with or without Quorn, there is no doubt that Monday’s school meals will now be cheaper in Edinburgh. Other health-related changes introduced in recent months have also brought down the cost of providing a typical school meal.

In the wake of an anti-sugar backlash by health campaigners, Edinburgh council’s main meals provider, Edinburgh Catering, appears to have largely replaced traditional-style puddings with fruit and yoghurt. With the furore earlier this week over the sugar content of most brands of yoghurt, I’m not sure it’s a massive improvement, nutritionally speaking. However, full points for trying. Meanwhile, the cost of a school meal in Edinburgh – for those who pay for them (P1 to P3 still benefit from Scottish Government-funded lunches) – now stands at £2.15 a head in primary schools and £2.55 in high schools. That should be plenty. The council tells me that the money saved will be put back into school meals – and assures me that it won’t be spent on filling potholes or paying for tram inquiries, which is heartening.

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It just remains to be seen what this will look like in practice. In an ideal world, extra investment would see school meals brought back “in house”, with school cooks preparing tasty and healthy food from scratch – rather than in central kitchens where meals are heated and reheated to within an inch of their lives.

Perhaps meat served in other meals during the week could be higher quality – and perhaps more plentiful – while fruit and vegetables could be made appetising and tasty. We have an opportunity to dramatically improve our children’s diet in

Edinburgh – and hopefully others will follow suit. Let’s not waste that opportunity.