Free school meals have become something of a political hot potato.
Charities, including Children in Scotland, have given their support for Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's announcement that primary one to three children in England will be given a free lunch from September next year.
This could provide relief to hard-pressed families living in poverty and the opportunity to boost children's health and wellbeing; not to mention the measurable benefits to a child when they come to school ready and willing to learn. But politicians have been silent about their commitment to make this happen for children in Scotland.
Latest figures put child poverty in Scotland affecting some 20,000; about one child in five going hungry and many not achieving their full potential academically. This is one in five households where families are struggling to keep their heads above water as prices rise, wages drop and welfare and benefits entitlements are significantly cut. Through the provision of free school meals we could take some of the strain away from these families, with parents knowing that their children would be receiving at least one healthy, balanced meal a day, at least in the early years of primary school.
We would also be practising what we preach about developing a healthy nation, instilling in Scotland's citizens the benefits and value of eating well and healthily at a very young age.
Through a shared eating experience, where the social value is recognised, we would help lay down positive habits to combat Scotland's troublesome, and often negative, relationship with food.
By the creation of communal time and space where good food is enjoyed, we would send a powerful message to our children about what mealtimes are all about, taking a step in the process towards tackling Scotland's performance as one of the most unhealthy and obese countries in the world.
Finally, through the provision of school meals we would provide essential nourishment. We know that children who come to school having eaten badly, or suffering from hunger, are unable to concentrate in class, may behave badly and cannot achieve their potential. By offering a meal during the day, we would give these children the fuel they need to learn, adding another essential ingredient to the range of support children living in disadvantage require.
Scotland will be unable to bridge the inequity gap in qualifications and achievements among our poorest children without such support.
Figures cited by the Child Poverty Action Group suggest that there is already a discrepancy between children who are recognised to be in poverty and the uptake of free school meals of almost 40,000.
While we must do more to ensure that those children already entitled to school meals take them, we must also be realistic. There are a number of factors at play that can prevent the uptake of policies .
These include: a lack of awareness the policy exists in the first place; confusion about qualifying criteria; and, quite simply, embarrassment or shame. Through providing school meals to all children of a certain age we would offer a safety net, without singling out or targeting those already feeling vulnerable. Also, we would teach children a valuable lesson in eating as a social, rewarding and fun experience.
As Magnus Gardham pointed out in his Herald column last week, the Scottish Government, whilst committing to explore the policy further, has been sceptical about developing it, perhaps suspicious of where the "new money" would come from and, arguably, still licking wounds from trying the very same thing in 2008.
But we are nothing if not a nation of triers. Now is not the time to adopt a once-bitten, twice-shy mantra. Let-our politicians learn from the roll-out of the policy in England and from the mistakes of a few years ago so that we can develop a policy that is inclusive in implementation, universal in its delivery and beneficial in the long term.
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