• 08/01/14
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By Mike Small

We’re delighted to support the announcement of free school meals for all schoolchildren in Scotland from primary one to three from next January. This is a key next step in the food revolution – but one that needs to be matched with local procurement, use of fresh seasonal ingredients and high nutritional standards to maximise its impact. The move will affect 165,000 youngsters, and is claimed will boost health and educational attainment.  It will also save families £330 a year for each child. The £114million package will provide free school meals to pupils in P1 to P3 and extend free nursery provision to thousands more two-year-olds. The extra childcare will be targeted at the most deprived pupils.

Congratulations to the coalition of groups who won the argument and received a victory for social justice: Children in Scotland, Children 1st, Save the Children, One Parent Families Scotland, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), STUC, UNISON, Church of Scotland, Shelter Scotland and the Poverty Alliance.

Anti-poverty campaigners, children’s organizations, trade unions and faith groups have long argued that the most effective way of ensuring all children, but particularly those in poverty, receive a healthy school lunch is to move toward a universal, non-means tested approach to the provision of healthy lunches in the middle of the school day (see http://www.cpag.org.uk/scotland/school-meals ) .

Graeme Brown, Director of Shelter Scotland has said:

At a time when the pressure on household budgets is forcing many families to make hard choices and cut back on essentials, this move by the Scottish Government is very much welcomed by Shelter Scotland. Coming against the backdrop of further cuts in welfare – with more drastic reductions threatened yesterday by Chancellor George Osborne – free school meals for pupils in P1 to P3 is a direct and proven way of supporting, in particular, families on low or limited incomes, and helping all schoolchildren in Scotland enjoy a better, healthier start to their primary education.

The key to success is not just making meals free but desirable and high-quality, opening the door to a new menu of aspiration of food for life. Luckily there’s evidence it will do just that. Recent research from the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex also analysed the wider impact of the Scottish Government’s free school meal pilots. The paper “attributes the rise in take-up of FSMs by those always entitled to a positive peer effect: FSM-registered individuals became more likely to participate because a greater proportion of other students in the school were doing so….The magnitude of the effect is such that in a typical school a 10 percentage point rise in peer-group take-up would reduce non-participation (ie non-take up by those already entitled) by almost a quarter.”

John Dickie, head of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) defended specifically the universal nature of these changes, saying:

A universal approach to healthy free school lunches provides a huge boost to children and parents at a time when they are under increasing pressure from tax credit and benefit cuts, soaring food and energy prices and stagnating wages. Current means-testing means too many of our worst off children are not receiving a free school meal and parents too often struggle to meet the extra costs of lunches as they move back into work or increase their hours when their children start school. What’s more a universal approach ensures that all our children, whatever their home circumstances, gain the health and education benefits of a healthy lunch in the middle of the school day.”

The Fife Diet welcome this move but we also support the comments from Alison Johnston, Green MSP who added: “Rolling out free school meals is a welcome, common sense move but ministers must also address what is being served up to our children.  Our councils need support to make buying choices which have positive impacts for local farmers and producers.  I will continue to put pressure on ministers so that they do not waste this golden opportunity.”

While Laura Stewart, Director of the Soil Association has stated:

Today’s announcement of universal free school meals for P1-P3 pupils in Scotland is a welcome investment in our children’s health and wellbeing. It has the potential to have a far reaching effect on Scotland’s food culture, in schools and beyond the school gates. It is vital, however, that cooks, teachers, parents and children are reassured that free school meals will be high quality, sustainable and tasty.  We need to grasp this opportunity and build on some of the great work already happening in our schools. We must invest, not just in free school meals, but in skilled cooks creating fresh, healthy, sustainable and trustworthy meals too, delivered in a pleasant environment and supporting good eating habits.

The universal approach has not only been shown to increase take up of healthy lunches and relief to family budgets but also to impact positively on children’s learning experience. Evaluation of a free school meals pilot for primary school children over two years in Hull found a “significant impact in all areas of children’s schooling…behaviour, social relationships, health and learning”, whilst more recent evaluation of the provision of free school meals to all primary pupils in Durham and Newham found that “offering free school meals to all primary school pupils increased attainment in disadvantaged areas”.