What is the state of school meals in Scotland?

Our nation’s menu

A look at the state of school meals in secondary schools across Scotland.

With the new school term now bringing in free school lunches for all Primary 1-3 pupils in Scotland, it seems like the right time to return to an issue that has always proved controversial: how healthy (and tasty) are school lunches?

Of course, for any council, it is very tough to produce high quality meals when they tend to have no more than £2 to spend per head. However, since 2011 when new restrictions were brought in to help improve school lunches, the general quality of primary school lunches have improved – bar a few exceptions which, unfortunately, are likely to appear.

So for the first seven years of their scholastic career, children should now be enjoying balanced, healthy diets – although when free school meals were featured on BBC Reporting Scotland a few weeks ago, the children were all eating pizza and ice cream… But how healthy are the menus offered when they jump up into secondary school?

Well, unlike primary schools, where most now have almost completely healthy menus, it does seem as though councils have been more lacklustre in their attempts to get people eating healthily once they hit secondary school, instead distracting them with “pizza meal deals” and the opportunity to go “down the street” to a takeaway for lunch.

Looking at the menus on offer in four different Scottish regions (Perth and Kinross, the Scottish Borders, Edinburgh and Inverness) it is possible to get a general overview of school lunches, with something that stood out across the regions being the selection of options on offer – in most cases around three main meals with various soups, sandwiches and “hot bites” being available. So you would think that with this selection, having a healthy option would be easy, right?

The answer to the above is one that varies depending on where you live. If you take a look firstly at the Scottish Borders, what stands out on the menu at first glance is the number of unhealthy options: sausage or bacon rolls, pizza, and cheese wraps all make an appearance on this menu with healthier options seeming to be more limited. It is possible to have a “Deli salad box” for £1.80 (20p less than a standard meal and 60p more than a bacon roll) but apart from that and the option of a sandwich-filled baguette and the usual fruit options, healthy choices seem few and far between.

As the holders of what we considered the unhealthiest menu of those studied, we decided to get in contact with Gillian Fleming, the Food and Nutrition Coordinator at Scottish Borders Council (SBC) to get her opinion on the matter.

When asked how easy it was, in her opinion, to have a healthy, filling lunch, she responded, “the healthy lunch options provided in our schools are balanced to meet nutritional standards set out by the Scottish Government and are filling options for young people.”

I also questioned her on SBC’s ongoing trial, offering Young Scot Reward Points when a healthy lunch is purchased. When asked what dishes were offered under this, she said “All dishes offered in schools are nutritionally balanced and therefore we have been able to offer all school meals in the Young Scot Rewards Scheme, which is currently on trial in three Borders High Schools.”

Upon closer inspection, the inclusion of “all school meals” referred to the daily main option, and not the likes of pizza and sausage rolls also on offer.

As this is an ongoing trial in 3 high schools, results were not yet available. Although if the scheme does turn out to be successful, it will be rolled out to all Scottish Borders High Schools in time for the 2015-16 year with other councils considering rolling out the scheme soon.

Of course, there are healthy options available with the main meals, however, the issue that I have with some of the menus discussed is that for any pupil that does not feel like eating well, they can easily choose one of the less healthy options on the menu, or indeed, just go out of school for chips.

There are, however, some regions which are attempting to eradicate this, one of which is Highland Council. Although offering fairly similar hot meals to other councils, one thing that they have focused on is cutting down on the number of unhealthy alternatives available at lunch.

In another attempt to make meals healthier, they have made a particular effort to source as much produce as possible from local farms and suppliers. This allows not just for healthier meals, but also better quality which was highlighted in their lunch survey where more than 15% more are opting for a school meal instead of heading out of school.

According to Highland Council’s website, more than “75% of food served is freshly prepared with all meat and eggs coming from farms in the Highlands when in season.” Although other councils do attempt to do this when possible (largely due to costs), the Highlands have worked out how to produce high quality, healthy meals at low costs. If there is then an uptake of this option, the higher demand means local produce can be bought in higher bulk and therefore for a lower price.

It may seem in this article that the Scottish Borders Council has been targeted, however, it was purely used as an example of a region that has needed to improve the school lunches that they offer, and in their defence, they are trialling a way to deal with it, although the success of this method is yet to be seen.

The Scottish Government have been constantly updating their requirements for lunches, however, many are sceptical as to how useful they have been. Although a large number of people argue that pupils should be able to make their own choice on how they eat, would it not be better to remove at least some of the temptations on offer to help them from an early age? After all, if you give a 12 year old the choice between a burger and a salad, they will tend to choose the former. If children develop eating habits at a young age, they tend to stick with them for the best part of their lives. So why not constructively aid them on this path of edible discovery?

Image: © Paul Watson (paulwatson/flickr).

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Ruairidh Campbell
Based in the Scottish Borders/Glasgow, Ruairidh has written extensively on everything from rugby to politics with work published in publications including the Scottish Rugby Union's website, Scottish Field Magazine and Edinburgh Rugby's match-day programmes.
Ruairidh Campbell

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  1. Very interesting piece Ruairidh. Are you old enough to remember the dreaded Turkey Twizzlers though, thank goodness they seem to have been banished from the nations school menus. What I think was interesting what you mentioned in your article was about the cost per child issue; in effect the market led ideology of privatization (in places of this provision) and cost effectiveness. That has ultimately been the reason for the spurge in unhealthy food. I think you can train a child to prefer a salad over a low quality, high in saturated fat burger. Sadly, perhaps not in this society. When I was in school, merely 10 years ago, the most popular queue was for the junk food (low quality burgers, sausages, turkey Twizzlers and fried chips). Perhaps these foods are not available, but the number of McDonalds, KFC and Burger Kings does not seem to be on the decline … and not recession hit either! That said, I think your article was a really interesting read! :)

    1. Hi Alex, thanks for your reply. Yes, there are memories of some of the more “interesting” items that used to be offered. I do agree about costs and how it has become easier for people to eat a poorer diet simply because it is cheaper (I’ve just written an economics essay on the topic). Although it is difficult to control what is eaten outside of schools, at least inside, on simple way is to stop allowing children to go out of school to get their lunch. Obviously, it depends where you live, however, most will be within minutes of some form of takeaway store. Although it is easier to get someone to enjoy a healthier meal if they have been brought up with it than if they are given the extra option at school, by removing the temptation of heading out for a burger and chips, then some might at least be tempted to enjoy those items that are healthier in nature. The problem, however, is that the whole process is of a very large scale which relies on just as large a number of variables to succeed.

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