Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's pledge of £600 million to fund free school meals for all P1, P2 and P3 state school pupils in England from September 2014, regardless of their parents' income, is expected to raise the number of eligible pupils from the current 400,000 to 1.5 million nationwide and save parents £400 a year per child.
But subsidising free school meals for three years of a child's life does not guarantee an improved national diet. Nutritional standards for school lunches are not compulsory in England as they have been in Scotland for years. So if local authorities - the delivery agents for school meals - aren't obliged to source quality ingredients, what is to stop them cutting procurement budgets and sourcing poor-quality processed frozen meals in bulk, heating them up remotely, and distributing them to schools in vans? Such a system does nothing to reconnect children with food - surely an imperative in this age of obesity.
Free school meals are available here for every child from P1 to S6, if the parents are receiving welfare benefits. Uptake has been steadily increasing and now stands at almost one in four. For those who pay, prices vary from £2 (Stirling) to £1.75 (Fife) and £1.20 (Glasgow).
There is no evidence Scotland will ever receive the mooted £60m budget "windfall" from Mr Clegg. It has been suggested by school meal campaigners that it might be better if Scotland introduced a flat rate of £1 for every school meal to help fund a rolled-out programme of healthy dishes cooked in-house from scratch with locally sourced fresh ingredients. Such good practice is already followed by local authorities such as Stirling, though the price of a school meal is £2 in primary (£2.10 in secondary) and uptake is 40%.
Introducing a universal ticket price could, it is said, bring this cost down, help increase uptake and reduce the number of unhealthy packed lunches made by misguided parents (cold turkey nuggets/lumps of cheese).
Good food has to be realistically priced and we must escape the mindset, encouraged by supermarkets, that food should be as cheap as possible and therefore relegated to the bottom of family household and council budgets. Cheap food is basically rubbish food packed with salt, fat, sugar and additives.
Legacy work is ongoing. Education Scotland reports 75% of primary and 33% of secondary schools are now growing their own food. The Food For Life Catering Mark, a certification scheme managed by the Soil Association Scotland to ensure caterers provide fresh, healthy meals, is delivering results. The scheme has bronze, silver and gold tiers. East and North Ayrshire Councils both have gold for their primary school meals service, and North Ayrshire for one secondary school; South Lanarkshire, Highland, East Lothian and Fife all have bronze for their primary school meals; and Edinburgh Catering Services has bronze for one high and one primary school. Stirling is going for silver. Glasgow City has cut its procurement budget by £1.5m, has an uptake of 70% and his having ongoing discussions with the Soil Association.
Progress in this holistic approach might be slow but it's steady, and a sensible way to build a healthy appetite.
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