LOCAL authorities around Scotland need to take decisive action to improve school meals – and create a culture of healthy eating in primaries and secondaries across the country – as part of the Scottish Government's drive to tackle obesity, according to campaigners and young people's charities.

The call comes after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon last week announced new targets to cut child obesity in Scotland by half by 2030. Scottish figures show 29 per cent of children are at risk of being overweight and 14 per cent of being obese. The targets have been backed by celebrity chef and campaigner Jamie Oliver, who is committed to improving school meals.

Organisations including Obesity Action Scotland claim that updated Scottish Government guidelines on sugar are needed to bring puddings, yoghurts and cakes served in schools in line with revised recommendations, and called on providers to cut down on processed foods like chicken nuggets and hot dogs.

Last year an Obesity Action Scotland report found that puddings, which on average have 14g of sugar (over three teaspoons) were served more often than soup in primaries. It claimed that made it almost impossible for younger children to keep to the recommended limit. For six year olds this is 19g a day while ten-year-old should consume no more than 24g.

Along with Children in Scotland and the National Parent Forum, Obesity Action Scotland claimed that not only should the quality of food be improved – with wilting, brown salad leaves and bland, over-cooked vegetables phased out – but the culture transformed. Set meals could be separated from play time and children encouraged to learn about food and enjoy the social experience of eating together rather than simply re-fuelling as fast as possible.

Onsite kitchens – found in only half of schools in some local authorities – should be brought back and used by the whole school community including class teachers, parents and out-of-school groups, while menus should be seasonal and use local produce. Though some local authorities, such as East Ayrshire prioritise local producers and organic foods as part of the Soil Association Scotland's Food for Life scheme, others can clock up thousands of food miles.

Jackie Brock, chief executive of Children in Scotland, said: "Scotland has made great progress in making sure that nutritional requirements are in place but there are still huge challenges. There is a significant amount to do before we can be happy that our work here is done."

She claimed too many schools were offering unhealthy options alongside healthy ones, with no prompting on offer from staff about menu choices, while others chose stodgy options because the healthier ones were not adequately filling. Too many school catering companies continued to offer unhealthy breakfast choices such as square sausage rolls, she added.

Investment in re-establishing onsite kitchens could be offset by reduced food waste, she claimed, adding: "These [kitchens] should be at the heart of the school, and not just used by catering staff. The culture needs to be transformed. The ambition is that we move away from school meals that are decided at HQ, then served to queuing children who bolt them down and go off to play. Good quality food should be seen as an essential part of the school day."

Lorraine Tulloch, programme lead at Obesity Action Scotland, said: "We should also be teaching our children to value eating and food as a social experience and not just a way to refuel. If we want to solve obesity we need to change our relationship to food."

Imaginative solutions were needed, she claimed, but also stressed the need to balance health and taste – one parent, volunteering in her school dinner hall, wrote a blog for the organisation in which she described how a chicken burger, with no butter or mayonnaise, was so dry it made her gag. "We need to ask children and involve them," said Tulloch. "Schools are only part of the solution but they are an important way of taking this forward," she added.

Joanna Murphy, chair of the National Parent Forum of Scotland, said that the organisation was often contacted by parents concerned about school meals. She acknowledged local authorities had a difficult balance to achieve when creating child-friendly, healthy meals. "But we must acknowledge that we have an obesity crisis looming," she added, claiming parents should be better consulted and informed. "In an ideal world more would be spent on [school] food."

Last March John Swinney established a working group to look at how school food could be improved. A Scottish Government spokeswoman said its report was complete and would be launched with the public consultation "in due course". She added: "Our schools serve over 50 million meals each year and since school food and drink regulations were introduced in 2008, meal uptake has increased. Our obesity strategy includes bold measures designed to help people make healthier choices and empower personal change along with world leading proposals to restrict the marketing of foods high in fat, salt and sugar."

A COSLA spokesperson added: "Councils do the very best they can and we have seen real innovation in some authorities extending this to breakfast clubs and indeed over the school holidays. We are fully aware of the impacts a healthy meal has on the overall learning experience."


Overcooked pasta, watery soup, and lots of uneaten lettuce...that was what parent council volunteers at Towerbank Primary school in Portobello found when they braved their children's school canteen after an invited from the headteacher to tackle the issue of school meals head-on. "One of the big challenges as a parent," explained vice chair Andrea Barlow, who has two sons in P2 and P5 at the school, "is when you look at the menus it seems designed to be healthy and child friendly. But the reality is quite different."

In Towerbank's dinning hall, fruit salad, supplied by Edinburgh Catering, was browning by the time it was served and the peel, core and pips left intact. Other dishes were congealed or soggy because they had been prepped hours in advance before being brought to the school, which does not have its own kitchen. Many children ate less than half of their meal and took just a few sips of milk or water, before dashing out to play, leaving staff to clear up.

Sure that there was a better way, parents visited other local schools where they found attractive fruit pots and salad bags on offer at child height, P7 monitors and staff helpers making sure children were encouraged to make good choices. They took their findings to Edinburgh City Council and were pleasantly surprised by the reception. "The parent voice can be powerful," said Barlow. "We were lucky because we found someone [within the council] who championed our cause."

Improvements came quickly including a better fruit selection, self-service salad bar, improved pizza – round with more toppings and a wholewheat base – and milk, which was so often warm and went to waste, was ditched. Parents have kept up regular monitoring and are now aiming to get a school kitchen installed. Catering staff, she claims, often working gruelling multiple shifts on low wages, take little pride in the food because they are not involved in planning or cooking it. "With a kitchen onsite we could have a cook, making good, healthy food that children want to eat," she said.

A City of Edinburgh Council spokesperson said it was "continually monitoring the quality and standards of our meals" across its schools and "will be investing in upgrading or building new kitchens where feasible". He added: "We continually work to enhance our menus, taking into account nutritional guidance and best practice."


It's 1.10pm - lunchtime in Holyrood Secondary School in Glasgow's southside. Though the seniors are on study leave, making it much quieter than usual according to my 15-year-old tour guide Caitlin Edelstein, a member of the School Nutrition Action Group (SNAG) here, there are still throngs of pupils in the corridors. With over 2000 pupils, it's Scotland's largest secondary school and direction of traffic is clear. This way to the fuel zone, Holyrood's school dinner hall.

Caitlin and her friends used to chose between eating here or going to Asda instead, where she bought sweets and a tub of pineapple, or chips in the supermarket cafe. But thanks to the work of SNAG there are changes afoot. At the counter, set up like a high street chain take away, there are pictures of the low-fat burgers, pizza slices, paninis and baked potatoes, with steel trays of fish and chips most visible. There's some tired iceberg-lettuce-based salad (covered with tinfoil), fruit bowls and a prominent display of cakes and goodies (low sugar apparently). So far, so standard. Menus across Glasgow's 138 primary schools and 30 secondary schools are the same, with food delivered to about half of the primaries which don't have kitchens.

But at Holyrood, in an attempt to keep pupils away from the chip shops and take aways nearby, they are working with city council school meal supplier Cordia to create some fresh menu options. Sixth year pupils have been given ingredients and worked with Home Economics teachers to create alternative "dishes of the month". Lime chicken noodles was a recent clear winner and the group are now developing a flat bread based meal. They are also now working with a French school to find inspiration for a new healthy international menu.

In the playground Caitlin points out the American dinner – a US-styled caravan in the playground complete with bar stools unveiled last year in an attempt to create a more social eating space – where SNAG also influenced the menu. "It's good because you can sit with your friends in there and it's fun," she explain.

They have also worked with four local businesses, as well as Cordia, to develop special "healthy" menus that earn young people stamps on a reward card that can be converted to green, red and gold apple-shaped badges. "Young people will always eat beyond the school gates, burgers and all sorts," explains deputy head Adele Dastey. "But on a survey 80 per cent told us that if there was a healthier option they would go for that. The businesses worked with us to develop a lunch pack with a piece of fruit, water and a main healthy meal. That might mean the chicken is grilled instead of fried or lighter dressings were made in-house." It's priced at £2. Young people were involved, giving honest feedback at a taste-test and the aim is now to roll it out further.

"It's been important that the kids have been involved because they can tell people what they really think and also tell their friends about what's it's all about," says Caitlin. "School meals are important because if you've had a proper meal you can go back to class and focus. You're not sitting there thinking about getting home so you can have something to eat."

Their work has seen them invited to national conferences and even shortlisted for a Education Scotland's Better Eating, Better Learning award.

A Glasgow City Council spokeswoman said: "A huge amount of work is undertaken to ensure that all our menus not only conform with legislation but can be produced within available budget and resources while, most importantly still contain what young people want to eat.

“It can be a challenge to strike the balance of producing food which meets strict guidelines on fats, sugars and salt while also encouraging meal uptake from young people – who have a lot of choice, but ultimately everything we produce is in line with legislation. The SNAG feedback helps enormously with this issue."


CHILDREN should be banned from buying food outside school grounds, former Olympic athlete turned MSP Brian Whittle has said.

Whittle said pupils should eat in school canteen to ensure they take healthy meals rather than fast food.

The Conservative MSP also said children could help decide the food options for canteen menus.

Whittle has already spoken in support of a ban on burger vans near schools.

However, he said tighter rules were needed to prevent children getting their lunch at fast food restaurants and takeaways.

Whittle said ministers could restrict the age at which pupils can leave school grounds during break times.

He said: "As most parents will testify, there is a tension between protecting our children from harmful behaviours such as poor nutritional choices and giving them the freedom to choose.

"I think we have this balance wrong and we need to take a long hard look at this issue.

"Within the school environment we should explore the age at which we allow pupils to leave the school grounds during break times.

"We do not want to impose a ‘nanny state’ on our children but we also want to help them to develop better choices without undue external influences.

"Key to this is not just about limiting external choice but also ensuring that school meals are of a high standard and that pupils have a meaningful input into the menus on offer."

When asked what ages the ban would apply to, Whittle said "under 15s".

Whittle said that children helped decide the menu in schools in Scandinavia, Japan and China, and suggested Scotland could adopt a similar system.

He said: "We need to have an environment where not only is good nutritional education taught, we need to offer the opportunity to apply that learning. Involving children in the development of the school menu affords buy in."

However, a Scottish Government spokeswoman said Whittle's proposal may not be not workable. “The age at which pupils, including those who are legally adults as they are over 16 years of age, can be prevented from leaving the school grounds is a complex legal area that would engage both existing statutes and wider human rights issues.

"It is therefore not immediately obvious how any local authority could force pupils – particularly young adults in secondary schools – to use the school canteen.

“This is among the issues local authorities must consider as they develop policies relating to pupils leaving or remaining in school at lunchtime, in collaboration with parents and pupils.”