Stephen Jardine: Time to ban packed lunches

A government study by two restaurant entrepreneurs has recommended mandatory school lunches for pupils. Picture: PA
A government study by two restaurant entrepreneurs has recommended mandatory school lunches for pupils. Picture: PA
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I HATED school meals. After a few encounters with grey mince and thick-skinned custard, I joined the rebels who abandoned the school canteen for the local takeaway.

That meant a bag of chips or, on sunny days, a salad roll with wilting ham and salad cream. Back then, I don’t think nutrition had been invented. Certainly no-one at school seemed to care what we ate or where we ate it.

Thankfully, times have changed.

Yesterday’s publication of the latest report on school meals in England and Wales makes challenging reading for parents and schools and so it should.

The report suggests head teachers should look at banning packed lunches brought from home and stopping children leaving school to eat at lunchtime. The motivation for that is the falling number of children now taking school meals, now down to just 43 per cent in England and Wales.

Ten years on from the Turkey Twizzler scandal uncovered by Jamie Oliver, school meals south of the Border have been transformed but the appetite for them hasn’t. Half-empty restaurants can’t make a profit and half-empty school canteens don’t generate the funds to continue improvements.

The report also underlines the health benefits of nutritionally balanced school meals compared to packed lunches, two thirds of which contain crisps or confectionary.

The report doesn’t cover Scotland but the dilemma here is the same.

Martha Payne’s school lunch blog uncovered the shameful state of food in one Scottish primary but thankfully didn’t reflect the state of the nation.

School lunch uptake here is ten per cent above England and Wales, currently running at 53 per cent, with some areas like Midlothian achieving 71 per cent. We need to build upon that and there are good things happening.

The Soil Association’s Food For Life scheme has been making huge progress,rewarding schools that serve good food with Bronze, Silver and Gold catering marks. Every school in Scotland should be striving for them. Nick Nairn’s Menteith Group has brought together food experts and professionals to apply their expertise to helping improve Scottish school meals. And Scottish Government has a clear focus on improving the health of the nation by ensuring every school child gets a good, nutritious meal they want to eat.

But we need to create the space for all that good work to succeed.

Building on the findings of the English report, in Scotland we should stop children leaving school to eat at lunchtime and the next step should be to ban packed lunches. With 100 per cent uptake, schools would then have more resources to invest and the Soil Association could help deliver standards of food that keep parents happy and make children want to eat.

The move from where we are to where we need to be won’t be easy but nothing worthwhile ever is.