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Good food in schools must not be a casualty of the pandemic

Good food in schools must not be a casualty of the pandemic

Across Scotland, plans are being finalised for the start of the new school term. But as teachers and parents grapple with guidelines for social distancing in classrooms, behind the scenes, catering staff are preparing to tackle one of the most important aspects of the school day: providing a nutritious meal at lunchtime.

We already know the crucial role that school meals can play in protecting children’s health. But putting locally sourced and sustainable food on school plates can also help Scotland on its way to the green recovery that most people living here want to see, by shortening food supply chains and protecting jobs in local businesses.

Food For Life Served Here Certificate at a schoolImage: A Food for Life Served Here award means school meals are a majority freshly prepared, making the most of local and sustainable ingredients.

Lunchtime isn't just a challenge - it's an opportunity

Local authorities are facing extraordinary challenges when it comes to getting children back to school safely. With so much already to consider, it might feel like the work involved in offering hot, freshly prepared school meals is more trouble than it’s worth. But while temporary arrangements might have to be in place during the transition to a ‘new normal’, cuts to the quality of school food on offer, even in the short to medium term, would be a false economy.

Lunchtime isn’t just a challenge to be overcome – it’s an opportunity. Access to a nutritious school meal has never been more important for children’s health. Even before the pandemic struck, the latest figures on childhood obesity revealed that almost a quarter of Primary 1 pupils in Scotland were starting school at risk of overweight or obesity, with the proportion of schoolchildren at risk growing in the most deprived areas.

The picture has darkened since March. Five million children in the UK are now living in households that are food insecure. Over half of children who would have received free school meals are reportedly eating no vegetables, while just under half are eating no fruit. Meanwhile, the Trussell Trust reported an unprecedented 107% rise in food parcels given to children in April 2020.

Only 1 percent of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards for school food

The UK government has announced its intention to launch a new anti-obesity drive, while the first independent review of UK food policy in almost 75 years has just published its initial recommendations for a National Food Strategy for England. But there are some measures – like serving healthy food in our schools – that we already know work.

Nearly 700,000 children attend Scotland’s schools. For some of them, the school lunch is the only hot meal they will receive all day. Only 1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards that apply to school food, but a meal that’s freshly prepared from unprocessed ingredients, low in additives, sugars, fats, and salt, and high in seasonal fruit and vegetables – like the majority of meals on a Food for Life Served Here menu – is an opportunity to make a real impact in fostering good health. Right now, it’s not one we can afford to miss.

Left Field Farm from LocavoreImage: Locavore's Left Field market garden supplies fresh produce for school meals in East Renfrewshire.

School lunches can support jobs in local food businesses

But school lunches aren’t just calories on a plate. Investing in sourcing and serving fresh, local, and sustainable food has knock on benefits for jobs and the environment. Prioritising meals that are made from scratch in the kitchen protects the jobs of the unsung heroes of children’s nutrition: the skilled frontline catering staff working in our schools.

What’s more, if local authorities take the opportunity to source produce from local food suppliers, school meals can play a role in supporting the local economy too. In an average year, Scotland’s public sector spends almost £150 million on food and drink. Now more than ever, that public money should be spent in a way that supports Scotland’s local food businesses.

Many local authorities – like the 14 Scottish councils that hold our Food for Life Served Here award for their school meals – are already making great strides in supporting local businesses. Like everyone else, their service was badly disrupted by the impact of lockdown. But those who have prioritised sourcing local produce for their meals and food boxes are clear about the benefits it brings.

Argyll and Bute Council included locally made bread rolls in their food boxes, which meant the bakery was able to bring a staff member back from furlough. And the delighted messages and phone calls that the council received when it included Scottish strawberries and cream in the boxes showed how highly people valued fresh, local produce.

75 percent of Scots want to prioritise a green recovery

Jayne Jones, Commercial Manager at Argyll and Bute Council and Chair of ASSIST FM recently told a meeting of Scotland’s local authority Food for Life Served Here award holders that the council is committed to its ‘good food first’ approach as the schools go back. The operational challenges can’t be underestimated, but the effort that has gone into making lunchtime safe is more than worth it.

A new poll released on Friday showed that three-quarters of people living in Scotland want to see measures that prioritise a green recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. We need to build on this appetite for change. In putting good food on the table in our schools, the public sector has the power and skills not only to protect children’s health, but to help Scotland to build back better from this crisis.