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What opportunities arise from the Universal Free School Meal roll out in Scotland?

Universal Free School Meals

The Scottish Government has committed to providing Universal Free School Meals (UFSMs) to all primary school children by August 2022, with the roll out starting for Primary Four when schools return in August 2021.

Depending on how this is implemented, free school meal expansion is an exciting opportunity to deliver on the ambitious Good Food Nation vision.

School meals are a vehicle for social change

At Soil Association Scotland, we believe that school meals are not merely calories on a plate but a vital tool to deliver on a range of policy priorities from health and the environment, to local economic development. To maximise this opportunity, we need to ensure that good food is served in our school meals. We define good food as:         

  • Good for health: Freshly prepared food, cooked from scratch using unprocessed ingredients and including lots of wholegrains, fruit and vegetables and less but better-quality meat.
  • Good for the environment: In season, sustainably produced, low climate impact food.
  • Good for the local economy: Produced and served locally by a skilled and knowledgeable work force and supporting thriving communities.

Half of Scotland's’ local authorities hold at least a bronze Food for Life Served Here award for their school meals services. These local authorities are serving freshly prepared food that is cooked from scratch, often with higher quality, locally sourced ingredients. This best practice needs to be the baseline for expanded provision.

Serving meals that adhere to our definition of good food will ensure that money invested in UFSMs not only tackles food poverty, but also delivers on other issues important to Scotland: climate, community wealth building and health.  Ensuring good food is served as part of the UFSMs expansion will contribute to a green recovery for Scotland.

We need quantity and quality

These outcomes are not guaranteed.

All local authorities in Scotland must meet stringent nutritional regulations, but these regulations don’t cover things like the level of food processing, where food comes from, or how much pupils know about what they’re eating. This means that how school meals are sourced and served varies widely across Scotland.

Although the provision of UFSMs does come with some extra funding for local authorities, school meal budgets have been under constant threat to council cuts for years, and aren’t protected in the same way as education budgets.  With books to balance post pandemic, it is likely that most local authorities will face difficult choices, and there is a risk that catering teams will feel they have no option but to prioritise quantity over quality for school meals.

Further cuts could mean that serving sustainable Scottish produce will simply not be possible. Lower quality products may need to be served and some councils may even be forced to consider cheaper operating models. Meals that are made elsewhere and then transported to a school, for example, are necessary for small or very rural schools, but they should be the exception not the rule.

Soil Association Scotland promotes a whole school approach to food where meals are prepared onsite in school kitchens by knowledgeable staff who know and engage with pupils. UFSMs present an opportunity to set the direction of travel for school meals in Scotland, and there is much good practice to build on.

When it comes to school meals we must prioritise both quality and quantity. Above and beyond being nutritionally compliant, school meals can also help to tackle climate change, create local jobs and contribute to a more resilient and fairer food system. This would undoubtedly provide better value than meals which are produced cheaply. However, to achieve this it will take investment and protection from cuts. We cannot reap these benefits on a shoestring.  Soil Association Scotland, alongside partners, are calling for national and local government policymakers to consider not just the cost of school meals but the value.

For further information, please read the discussion paper we contributed to alongside ASSIST, Nourish Scotland, local authority caterers themselves and many other school meals stakeholders which further outlines the case for good food provision in UFSM.