Good food can be the power boost to better health

"Good food can be the power boost to better health"

For everyone involved in public sector catering across Scotland, it’s clear just how important a free school meal can be for young people.

For some pupils, it will be the one hot meal they will have that day. Not only will it be hot, but it will also be nutritious and filling, setting the pupils up for the rest of the day. Good food can be a boost to better health, learning and development and all our young people deserve that. 

Since the introduction of Universal Free School Meals (UFSM) in Scotland, the uptake has continued to rise, from 67% in 2022 to 70% in 2023. And in the 24/25 Scottish Budget, the Scottish Government committed to expanding UFSMs to P6 and 7, although negotiations on the appropriate funding are ongoing. 

Last month, I attended a roundtable at Scottish Parliament, hosted by Monica Lennon MSP and attended by Cabinet Secretary Jenny Gilruth MSP, to discuss the expansion. The Cabinet Secretary acknowledged the importance of school meals and promised to highlight the financial need for further rollout of Universal Free School Meals at a subsequent cabinet meeting. The need, and willingness to act, was clear in the room. All our young people deserve good food on the plate. And it was evident during the discussion that there is demand, too! It was fantastic to hear directly from inspirational and articulate young people advocating for Universal Free School Meals and sharing their perspectives and experiences. Thank you to Newton Primary, Holy Cross High School, and Ardrossan Academy pupils, as well as Gemma from Passion 4 Fusion. 

The perspective of catering teams across Scotland was also highlighted during the roundtable. Chair of ASSIST and Head of Catering at City of Edinburgh Council Chris Ross spoke of council catering teams readiness to progress and enthusiasm to increase the fantastic work they already do. Councillor Buchanan, representing COSLA, echoed this and raised the question of whether to begin a staged rollout so that some P6 and 7 pupils can access free school meals sooner rather than later. 

Here at Soil Association Scotland, we believe that school meals are an investment in Scotland's priorities on health, environment and on supporting a thriving local economy so it was also encouraging that the role of producers and suppliers in providing good food for UFSMs was discussed. Our programme is here to help connect local authorities with local producers, and in recent years we’ve supported Mossgiel Organic Dairy to supply Easy Ayrshire Council, and Mungoswells Farm to send their flour to East Lothian Council, but we know there is huge potential to connect more local producers and councils across Scotland. 

Through our work at Food for Life Scotland, we know just how hard school caterers work to provide a high-quality school meals service, balancing budget pressures amid a cost-of-living crisis, changing dietary needs, nutritional regulations and other legislation. It’s no easy feat, and we’re in awe of the commitment to good food on display in local authorities across Scotland 

Greater support and resourcing is needed to rollout UFSMs and continue to prioritise both quality and quantity. Soil Association Scotland, alongside others at the roundtable, are calling for national and local government policymakers to consider not just the cost of school meals but the value, and to provide adequate resourcing and equipment for caterers to meet the commitment to providing UFSMs to P6 and 7. As well as look to introduce, and resource, free school meals for secondary pupils in the future, too.