CHILDREN in Scotland are facing a postcode lottery when it comes to nutrition in schools.
An investigation by the Sunday Herald has uncovered huge variation when it comes to the access pupils across the country have to free fruit and milk at school. It was also uncovered that just one council provides free school meals beyond the standard national eligibility criteria, which targets pupils from the most deprived backgrounds.
Only Dumfries and Galloway has extended provision of school meals, with all primary one pupils entitled to a lunch regardless of their family circumstances.
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Renfrewshire Council currently provides free school meals to all primary one to three pupils at 16 selected primary schools, but this is due to be cut back later this year to only those families entitled under the national eligibility requirements.
Just three councils provide some form of access to free milk for primary pupils outwith those on school meals – Aberdeen City, Inverclyde and West Dunbartonshire. And just over half Scotland's local authorities – 18 out of 32 – provide some form of free fruit for younger pupils, ranging from access to fruit bowls for all primary pupils to fruit three times a week for children in primary one and two.
The amount that parents have to fork out for a school meal is also a postcode lottery. Prices can differ by hundreds of pounds a year, with the cost of primary school meals currently ranging from £1.15 per day in Glasgow up to £2 in Aberdeen City, Argyll and Bute, Dundee, Moray, Renfrewshire, Shetland and South Ayrshire. Secondary school prices vary from £1.15 in Glasgow to £2.40 in the Scottish Borders.
Top Scottish chef Nick Nairn, who founded food standards campaign group the Menteith Group, said the provision of food in schools was a complex subject because local authorities had varying views of how important it is.
He said: "Children's health and wellbeing is too important to be left to chance – government should do whatever it needs to do to make sure that every child at school, once a day, gets a really good, tasty, nutritious healthy meal."
A raft of improvements have been made in recent years to school meals in Scotland, with the introduction of regulations in 2007 and 2008 setting out nutritional standards for food and drink being served. However, the issue of the quality of school meals is once again back in the spotlight in the wake of the horse meat scandal.
Last week it emerged that meat containing horse DNA was found in the kitchen at Cumbernauld High School. The meat – in the form of a frozen burger – was provided by the supplier Brakes Group. Schools have now been warned to take all frozen beef products off the menu.
David Payne, the father of 10-year-old Scottish school dinners blogger Martha Payne, also raised concerns.
He said: "I think there should be equality on the plate – it doesn't matter where you are in Scotland, there should be great food. And why aren't prices the same across Scotland?"
In 2007, the SNP made a manifesto pledge to deliver free school meals for all primary one to three pupils. However, councils were later given flexibility and told they could target pupils from deprived areas rather than implement the policy wholesale. Currently parents who are on certain benefits, or claim tax credits and have an income under a certain amount, can claim free school lunches for their children.
But local authorities have powers to extend provision to other pupils and introduce other "extras", such as free breakfasts, free lunches, free fruit or free milk.
John Dickie, head of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, said there had been "huge disappointment" when the commitment to roll out free school meals to all primary one to three pupils had been scaled back.
He said: "We would call on all local authorities to be using the powers they do have to ensure that at least in those early years of primary one to primary three that all children have access to a healthy school lunch."
Dickie said the introduction of the new Universal Credit benefit system – due to be phased in later this year – would provide an ideal opportunity to widen access. He said around half of all pupils would be entitled to a free school meal if the criteria included families in receipt of any form of Universal Credit.
A spokesman for local authority umbrella group Cosla said decisions on school meal provision were up to individual councils.
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said a working group was examining progress made since the publication of the Hungry for Success report in 2003, which set out how to improve school meals.
She added: "We are committed to ensuring that children can continue to expect nutritious, healthy food choices, including fruit and vegetables, in our schools."