Scottish School Meals | Scottish School Meals’ Response to ‘School Meals – ‘Transforming a Feeding Culture into an Eating Culture’
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Scottish School Meals’ Response to ‘School Meals – ‘Transforming a Feeding Culture into an Eating Culture’

Scottish School Meals’ Response to ‘School Meals – ‘Transforming a Feeding Culture into an Eating Culture’

Scotland’s Obesity Crisis

There are currently 867,000 school aged pupils in Scotland – an estimated 30% are overweight. Which means that 260,000 school aged pupils are overweight in Scotland

Obesity statistics from 2015 state that:

  • obesity could be costing Scotland up to £4.6bn a year
  • the figure came in a Scottish Parliament briefing which said the problem was putting a “significant and growing burden” on the nation
  • according to 2013 figures, almost two thirds of adults were overweight, with 27.1% classed as being obese.
  • The government has described obesity as one of Scotland’s next big health challenges
  • the problem could be costing the NHS as much as £600m a year.

As it states on the Scottish Government website, ‘Obesity can reduce people’s overall quality of life. It creates a strain on health services and leads to premature death due to its association with serious chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and hyperlipidaemia, which are all major risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

It’s obvious that we have a ticking time bomb on our hands, and it is frightening that we are number two in the world, just behind the US, when it comes to numbers of obese people. So the past few weeks have been interesting in terms of the Scottish obesity issue.

Firstly, a report from Obesity Action Scotland called ‘School Meals – ‘Transforming a Feeding Culture into an Eating Culture’ was published. The main premise of the report was that the school dining experience across Scotland varied dramatically and that although many Scottish primary schools frequently offered salad bars and salad bowls, they also served puddings more often than soup and frequently served red and processed meat.

The report stated that, ‘School meals provide the opportunity to turn this poor diet around and have a positive influence on the health of children growing up in Scotland. In 2015 school age children ate only 2.7 portions of fruit and vegetables per day compared to the five portions recommended and only 14% of school aged children ate oily fish once a week. It is also reported that free sugar intake is highest in children aged 4 to 18 compared to all other age groups. This means school age children are consuming free sugar at a rate three times the recommended level. The main sources of free sugar for children are cakes, biscuits, cereals, soft drinks, fruit juice, sugar, preserves, confectionery, yogurt, fromage frais and other dairy desserts. Our research indicates that items such as cakes, cookies, sweetened yogurts and other desserts in school meals could be significantly contributing to this excess intake of free sugars in children.’

Okay, so hard to argue that this is a major influence on the rise in Obesity.

Or is it?

The Obesity Action Scotland report seems damning in its take on school dinners – it says that:

4 local authorities serve chicken nuggets once a week

17 local authorities serve beef or chicken pies once a week

22 local authorities serve pizza once a week

23 serve chips once a week (including two, where chips are served twice a week)

4 serve BBQ pulled pork or haggis once a week

12 authorities offered puddings every day of the week

14 offered it four days a week

2 on two days a week

2 on three days a week

This makes pretty poor reading doesn’t it? Well it would until you delve a little deeper than what is written on the actual menus.

The chicken nuggets are freshly prepared by the authorities – made with chicken breast.

The beef or chicken pies are made to nutritional guidelines laid down by the Scottish Government.

The pizzas are generally homemade and when not, have been created by companies especially for the school meals service with less fat and sugars than ones you buy in the supermarkets.

Yes, chips are on most councils menu once a week – but again the chips have been created to a specification that is lower in fat and only created for the schools and are not sold to the general public. Plus the government legislation holds each council to only serving two fried products in any given week.

BBQ pulled pork or haggis is served in some schools but these products again are produced to a specification for schools and many are procured straight from local butchers.

What constitutes a pudding? Many councils produce their own home baked produce with lower sugar content, and although some councils put on a pudding every day are they really awful?

Yes, some councils may put on a sponge pudding one day but on another day they will have fresh fruit as their pudding or a piece of home baking made to a low sugar content recipe, and including no confectionery whatsoever. In fact the winning recipe in the Scottish Schools bake off was an autumn muffin that looked like it was for all intents and purposes a chocolate muffin, but was actually made with beetroot. What we are saying is appearances can be deceptive as can a dish on a menu!

Lets’ look at the statement again that says ‘The main sources of free sugar for children are cakes, biscuits, cereals, soft drinks, fruit juice, sugar, preserves, confectionery, yogurt, fromage frais and other dairy desserts. Our research indicates that items such as cakes, cookies, sweetened yogurts and other desserts in school meals could be significantly contributing to this excess intake of free sugars in children’.

Now, let’s look at what the schools serve.

They can only serve homemade cakes and biscuits that are low in sugar, they are only allowed to sell unsweetened fruit juice provided the portion size is no more than 200ml, they cannot sell any carbonated soft drinks, they cannot use jams in any of their products, and they do not sell fromage frais.

The report came out in the same week as the two other pieces of news relating to obesity:

Firstly the UK Millennium Cohort Study that looked at the link between childhood sleep and routines and obesity. The study found that young children with varied bedtimes were almost twice as likely to be obese than those with a regular bedtime (at age 11). The study may have been a little flawed in that it is impossible to correlate that varied sleep routines in themselves would not cause a greater chance of obesity. However, if a child is up longer, is playing at their playstation or xbox and has the opportunity to snack more this could surely have an effect?

The second, more worrying story, was that up to 3 million children are at risk of going hungry during the school holidays, leaving them vulnerable to malnutrition and undermining their education and life chances.

The report, by a cross-party group of MPs and peers, cited evidence of children existing on a diet of crisps in the holidays.

The report went on to say that those at risk of hunger during the summer holidays included more than 1 million children, who received free school meals during term time, and 2 million more with working parents who are still in poverty.

The all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on hunger found there was a “deeply troubling” impact on children who had gone hungry over the holidays and returned to class “malnourished, sluggish and dreary”.

Edwina Currie got into a lot of hot water stating on twitter, ‘If “3 million UK children go hungry in the school holidays” then why aren’t hospitals full of malnourished kids? Maybe.. just not true, eh?’

But both these stories are about areas out with the school caterer’s control.

So, on one hand we have a report saying school meals are one of the biggest current negative influencers on obesity. On the other hand more than 2 million pupils in the UK are at risk of not being fed during the holiday periods, a statistic that is backed up by the terrific holiday feeding schemes in North Ayrshire and East Renfrewshire Councils that have unfortunately had to grow in size due to increased demand and need.

Is there a case to say that during school time, many pupils who get fully rounded nutritious meal at lunchtimes may not get proper meals in the evening, and in that case is a pudding at lunchtime really so heinous?

We are unfortunately living in a time when obesity is on the increase, but it is a fact that the largest increases in obesity in Scotland are in the lower income areas.

In August this year Scottish School Meals/ASSIST FM will, on behalf of their members, launch a national obesity campaign aimed at trying to change the culture of our nation little by little. It’s not going to be an easy ask. Culture is not something that changes overnight. But they realise that it is incumbent on them to try to do something.

This is despite the fact that if a pupil was to eat a school lunch every day this would make up 17.5% of their meal intake. 82.5% of their meals are, therefore, outside the school gates. With school meals take up in secondary schools averaging around 50% across Scotland, 50% of secondary pupils are not even eating that 17.5% in school. All their meals are out with the school gate.

Obesity is not a problem that will go away quickly. There are many reasons why it is on the rise in our country, including the rise in fast food, the fact that many people still don’t know how to cook fresh food in their own homes, the lure of confectionery and soft drinks, the reduction in exercise for many of our young people, the increase in poverty, the rise of mobile phone culture where people live more sedentary lives living out their social lives on mobile phones rather than actually going out with their friends, and so on and so on. This is a culture that is becoming more and more entrenched, and it something that organisations involved in this area need to tackle together.

In 2012 a study was undertaken for YouGov that stated:

  • 94% think parents should be responsible for dealing with their child’s weight problem
  • 50% think the child themselves should be responsible for dealing with the weight
  • 27% think schools should be responsible
  • 22% think the local authority and social services should bear some responsibility
  • 21% think the NHS is responsible for dealing with a child’s obesity


This was on a survey size of 1670 people.

The perception probably hasn’t changed much since then.

But instead of blaming the school caterer’s for the level of obesity, should we not all be working together to find a solution? Council catering organisation’s work under extremely difficult circumstances and under extremely tight budgets. They are passionate about trying to do the right thing for their pupils. They are increasing the amount of food locally procured and they are producing healthy nutritious meals that are balanced over a week, in line with Scottish Government regulations. They do watch what they serve and they carry out initiatives like the holiday feeding because it is the right thing to do. The problem with headlines like ‘Cultural step change’ called for over Scottish school meals is that it seems to put the onus on the food served in the school as the panacea for our obesity problems, when in reality the problem lies right across Scottish society.

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