Nursery children are to receive free fruit or vegetables as part of a new Scottish Government healthy eating package that will also see poor families given targeted help to buy nutritious food.
Ministers propose to use new Holyrood welfare powers to increase the amount of money low-income families can spend on healthy foods, as well as extend the range of items that can be purchased.
Those eligible for the scheme will also be issued with pre-loaded digital smartcards to access the new Best Start Foods payment, replacing the UK-wide existing voucher system which has been criticised for stigmatising struggling families.
The Scottish Government published the consultation document Welfare Foods, outlining the plan which aims to tackle inequality and improve Scotland’s poor health record.
According to the document, many young children in Scotland are failing to eat their recommended daily allowance of five portions of fruit and veg. Almost half (48 per cent) of two- to four-year-olds are eating less than three portions of fruit and vegetables a day and 4 per cent are eating none.
Under the proposals, ministers intend to give a free fruit or vegetable snack to nursery children to complement the free meal they will be offered by 2020 under the Scottish Government’s childcare expansion plans.
The document said: “We are considering including an offer of a daily healthy snack such as a piece of prepared fruit or vegetable. This will complement the free meal offer for all children in ELC [early learning and childcare] funded provision by 2020.”
Ministers are also considering ways of offering healthy snacks to children being looked after in the third and private sectors, as well as those going to childminders.
Next year the Scottish Government proposes to introduce the Best Start Food system, which will be run by the new Scottish social security agency. It will see poor families receive a weekly payment of £4.25 – an increase from the £3.10 they receive under the current UK voucher system.
All pregnant women under the age of 18 and pregnant women and families receiving certain benefits will be entitled to the money.
The benefits determining eligibility include income support; Jobseeker’s Allowance; employment and support allowance; child tax credit up to a maximum income of £16,190 per year; universal credit; child tax credit; working tax credit; pension credit and housing benefit.
The food that families are entitled to will be widened from the cow’s milk, infant formula milk and fresh or frozen vegetables received under the UK voucher scheme. In Scotland, eligible families will also be entitled to tinned fruit and vegetables, dried or tinned pulses (including lentils, peas, barley, beans) and eggs.
The document notes that the long shelf life of tinned fruit and vegetables would help those in remote communities, adding they were also a good source of vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre.
Pulses are considered an inexpensive source of protein. They count as one of the “five-a-day” and can be made into stews and soups.
Eggs were described as an easily stored, “cheap, versatile, nutritious” form of protein which could be easily turned into a variety of meals.
Ministers also want to see Scotland move from the UK’s paper voucher scheme to pre-loaded digital smartcards to reduce the stigma associated with vouchers.
With powers over the UK’s Nursery Milk Scheme coming to Scotland, it is also proposed to use funded nursery places to deliver milk to those aged three and four as well as some two-year- olds.
The Scottish Government also intends to maintain UK Nursery Milk Scheme’s offer of free milk for children out with state-funded nursery provision. The document also included plans to integrate the UK’s Healthy Start Vouchers and Sure Start Maternity Grant to give a Scottish Best Start Grant (BSG).
Eligible families would get £600 on the birth of their first child and £300 on the birth of subsequent children.
The British Medical Association last night welcomed the proposals, but said the free fruit or vegetable initiative ought to be extended to primary school pupils.
BMA Scotland chairman Dr Peter Bennie said: “The eating habits and nutrition that children receive in early life often go on to have a profound impact on their health as adults, so it is absolutely right that more is done to ensure that every child grows up eating a healthy, nutritious diet.
“Proposals to provide a healthy snack to children in early learning and childcare are welcome steps, but such provision should not end when a child starts school. The BMA believes that every primary school child should receive a free portion of fruit or vegetables every school day.
“The Scottish Health Survey has consistently shown that children are on average eating less than three portions of fruit or vegetables each day, instead of the recommended five. More comprehensive action has long been needed.
“These proposals represent an important opportunity to improve the health of children growing up in Scotland, so it is important that we get this right. We look forward to responding to the consultation more fully in due course.”
Scottish Conservative public health spokeswoman Annie Wells was also supportive.
She said: “Anything that gets people, particularly children, eating healthier food is worthy of consideration. The health inequalities gap between rich and poor is well-documented, with people in more deprived areas dying younger and more likely to suffer from a range of health issues.”
Public Health Minister Aileen Campbell said: “Central to our aim of improving Scotland’s health and tackling inequality is ensuring everyone can have a healthy diet, especially families with young children.
“There is strong evidence that diet impacts on children’s health, their ability to learn and their life chances as they grow up.
“For too many families, poverty and deprivation are daily barriers to eating healthily.
“Our plans set out how we can further support families to make healthier choices.”