Year 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we work, travel, spend free time and interact with others. Due to the pandemic, children in Scotland were home-schooled from the end of March, only returning to school mid-August.
Related to this change was the issue of school meals. Normally, in Scotland all P1-P3 children receive free school meals. However, following the outbreak, this service was made available only for those on lower incomes that would be eligible for benefits. This was provided through vouchers, cash, food deliveries or pre-prepared meals, depending on the area. Now, as children return to school, school meals are once again available to all, including free school meals for P1-P3. However, they are not the same as they were before the pandemic. We looked at local authorities’ websites on 25th August and on that day around half of the authorities provided cold meals only, with many in the form of lunch ‘grab’ bags. Some authorities have committed to reviewing this in September.
Obesity Action Scotland has a keen interest in school meals, not only because they provide important nutrition for our children, helping educate them on diet and food culture, but also because school meals, as a public procurement power, can be a policy tool for promotion of healthier food choices.[i] Public procurement provides an opportunity to influence the market and offer incentives for industry to produce healthier food. For example, in order to implement their Organic Action Plan 2020, Denmark used public procurement as a primary driver for increasing the demand for and production of organic food.[ii]
Due to our interest in school meals, we looked at what primary school children are given for lunches, by analysing menus published on local authorities’ websites. We did this research in 2017 and 2019, repeating it at the beginning of 2020, pre-pandemic, when children were still in schools. In contrast to the previous years, our newest report also includes school meals uptake figures, presents our vision for school meals in Scotland, and includes a case study of Amsterdam’s Jump-In primary school programme.
While our new report analyses pre-pandemic data, it is important to apply this learning to our current situation. Our findings suggest that in February primary school meals in Scotland were in some respects even better than in previous years. For example, all local authorities offered soup and continued provision of salad, fruit and yogurt, and less red and processed meat was on the menus.
As we recover from the pandemic, we need to make sure that we not only maintain pre-pandemic school meals standards, but improve school food further. Re-imagining and Building Back Better has been called for by experts from many fields, including the Scottish Government in their response to the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery. Improved national diet, resulting in better health of people in Scotland, can build resilience to potential future outbreaks. Therefore, dietary improvement should be an integral part of our recovery agenda, and a key public health aim.
Although school meals are only a small part of our national diet, they are a key opportunity for influencing diet, and a part that teaches our children what is normal and acceptable. This experience is often carried through life, echoing in dietary choices long after we leave school. We therefore should be brave in our vision. The new report includes our take on the ‘gold standard’ school meal experience.
Read the full report:
[i] Storcksdieck genannt Bonsmann S, Caldeira S, Gauci C, Calleja A, Furtado A. (2017) Public procurement: a policy tool to promote healthier food environments and choices. Public Health Panorama, 3(4), 537-820
[ii] Sørensen NN, Lassen AD, Løje H, Tetens I (2015) The Danish Organic Action Plan 2020: assessment method and baseline status of organic procurement in public kitchens. Public Health Nutrition, 18(3), 2350-2357