Juliet Dunlop: Such a thing as a free school lunch

Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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The latest Scottish Health Survey contains little that is new and much that is worrying.

It is a depressingly familiar snapshot of a nation that eats and drinks too much; one that chooses to ignore the warnings and, no matter the risks, resolutely refuses to change. The data, from a survey commissioned by the Scottish Government, speaks for itself.

One in four men and almost a fifth of women drank “hazardous” amounts of alcohol last year. Two in three Scots were categorised as overweight or obese. Only one in ten children and a fifth of adults consumed the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

One in three adults and three out of ten children still don’t get enough exercise. One in four adults smokes and one in five children lives in a household where someone smokes.

In an interesting footnote to all of the above, it turns out that 31,000 Scots have a gambling problem. Given the fatalistic attitude we have to our health, this last statistic should come as no surprise. It’s a wonder the figure isn’t higher.

But betting aside, it is almost as if we revel in our reputation as the “sick man of Europe”. We seem to hover around the self-destruct button and show little sign of edging away. The 2012 figures I have listed are almost identical to those published in 2011, and, as adults, we must shoulder the blame. We know what to eat and how much. We know how many pints of beer or glasses of wine are too many. We know smoking is bad, that exercise is good. But we cannot go on being wilfully blind about the state of children’s health in Scotland. The poor eating habits, the lack of exercise and exposure to smoking that this survey highlights are unacceptable.

Clearly, something needs to change. Parents are struggling to set a good example, public health campaigns are having a limited impact and year after year the message isn’t getting across. If we are serious about altering habits, tackling childhood obesity and improving the health of young people, a different, more direct approach, is needed. One of the best ways to do this would be to follow the lead of the UK government and give every five, six and seven-year-old a free school meal. Unions, churches and children’s organisations have written to Scottish ministers urging them to match the commitment for England announced by Nick Clegg at the Liberal Democrat conference last week. They say it’s a no-brainer; an “I agree with Nick” moment.

The policy will cost £600 million a year, meaning the Scottish Government should receive an extra £60m to spend how it chooses. This is money that could easily be spent on other things, some may argue more important things, but it would make a great deal of sense to invest it in the children this survey describes.

Studies show that a healthy, nutritious school meal can increase energy levels, improve concentration and behaviour. At the moment, too many children skip lunch, eat packed lunches stuffed with crisps and biscuits, or just buy the wrong things.

If the norm is chips and pizza, a healthy school lunch that everyone eats can change that. Making it a universal benefit also means there is no stigma. Some schools have introduced various kinds of pay-by-card schemes, but children are acutely aware of difference and many don’t take up the offer. A commitment to extend provision could wipe all that away.

Of course, more, much more, needs to be done to tackle Scotland’s love affair with fried food, booze and cigarettes. As adults, we have the power to change what we consume, however hard it may be. But children have far fewer choices.

They must eat what their family can afford, or simply chooses to buy. Eating one healthy meal is no guarantee that bad habits won’t still develop, but it does send out a powerful message; that we want to give all children the best possible start in life.

A free school meal would be an enormous boost for children and families across Scotland.

To those who say there is no such thing as a free lunch, try it and see.

It could make all the difference to the next set of statistics. Surely that’s a bet worth taking?