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Cutting funding for school dinners is a false economy

Take cuts to school meals off the menu

Local authorities are under huge pressure to find savings as they set their budgets. But cuts to school food are a false economy – let’s take them off the table.

Across Scotland, councils are working hard to balance the books in an uncertain budget year. Nobody denies that difficult decisions have to be made; but some of the cuts under consideration would undoubtedly prove to be a false economy.

Some local authorities are turning to school meals to find savings. But the long-term impacts of putting cheap, ultra-processed food on children’s school dinner plates are too big a price to pay.

There is another way – from our work with the 14 local authorities across Scotland who hold the Food for Life Served Here award for their school meals service, we’ve seen first-hand the health, environmental, and economic benefits that school food can deliver.

It’s good for health

The latest figures on childhood obesity, released late last year, revealed that almost a quarter of Primary 1 pupils in schools across Scotland are starting school at risk of overweight or obesity.

What’s worse – the report found that the inequality gap is growing, with the proportion of schoolchildren at risk having increased in the most deprived areas, but decreased in the least deprived.

For some children in Scotland, their school lunch will be the only hot meal they receive all day. With a ground-breaking new study finding that free school meals reduce childhood obesity rates, we should be seizing the opportunity to provide children with a healthy, nutritionally balanced meal at lunchtime.

Nearly 700,000 children attend Scotland’s schools. Serving up school food that’s freshly prepared from scratch – like the majority of meals on a Food for Life Served Here menu – means that many more of our schoolchildren are eating fresh, unprocessed food which is lower in the additives, sugars, fats, and salt that contribute to obesity, diabetes and other conditions in later life.

It's good for the environment

In April 2019, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon declared a climate emergency, and since then many of Scotland’s local authorities have followed suit.

We all know that business as usual isn’t an option – but we need to join the dots between the climate and nature crises and the food on our plate.  

Scotland’s public sector spends over £149 million on food and drink every year. Rather than intensively farmed meat from half-way around the world or pesticide-laden fruit and vegetables, that money could be buying locally produced food that supports Scotland’s farmers, helps to build thriving rural economies, and protects the environment for future generations.

Local authorities that hold the Food for Life Served Here award are serving up more food that’s locally produced and in season, helping contribute to a greener environment by reducing carbon emissions from food miles.

And councils with a Silver or a Gold Food for Life Served Here award are also boosting their spend on organic produce – which means they are supporting planet-friendly farming that guarantees higher animal welfare, fewer pesticides and no genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and up to 50% more wildlife on farms.

It’s good for local economies

The Food for Life Scotland programme helps councils to get more Scottish food on the table. In fact, research has shown a social return on investment of £4.41 for every £1 invested over three years in the Food for Life approach.

The Food for Life standards guarantee that all meat on menus meets UK animal welfare standards. In practice, this often means an increase in spend on high quality Scottish meat by councils holding the Food for Life Served Here award. For example, since achieving the Food for Life Served Here Bronze award for their school meals, 95% of fresh butcher meat served in West Lothian Council’s primary schools is now sourced from Scotland.

Being involved in the Food for Life Scotland programme doesn’t necessarily cost councils more. By taking a fresh look at menus as a whole rather than just substituting ingredients, councils can serve more fresh, local food without increasing costs. Both Renfrewshire Council and Edinburgh City Council achieved the Bronze award on a cost-neutral basis.

Let’s take cuts to school meals off the menu

Scotland’s future as a Good Food Nation is in our hands. Where better to start than with our children’s school meals?