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Cheap school dinners are a poverty diet

TASTY and nutritional midday meals are almost impossible to produce because costs have been continually driven down, a home economics specialist has said in the wake of a major report on healthy eating.

The Scottish Council Foundation, an independent think-tank, this week slammed "unattractive and nutritionally poor" school meals and society's unwillingness to pay for healthy options. Scotland already lags well behind England and Wales in laying down appropriate guidelines, it says.

The report attacks authorities for accepting sponsorship from companies selling fizzy drinks and fast food and says that catering contracts are awarded to operators with only a weak commitment to provide nutritious meals.

Eileen Mullen, former chairman of the Institute of Home Economics, found little to disagree with in the report, which calls for an overhaul of food policy. "It's putting it into practice and getting the real political will to make a difference," she said.

Service providers are given pound;1.30 for meals in secondaries and pound;1.35 in primaries - with milk. But Mrs Mullen said: "If pound;1.30 is what you are getting, you are not going to get very much if you are thinking in terms of a good midday meal. When you compare the price of a meal against a Mars Bar or fish supper, you can understand that the meals service is up against a rock and a hard place."

Questions had to be asked of services which claimed to meet high food standards within the price range. They were likely to cut corners, and also had to cater for customer tastes which might not include healthy options. "If they do not come through the doors of the dining hall, there's no way we can make a difference," Mrs Mullen said.

She continued: "If we want to use this to judge what Scotland as a society is doing for its vunerable young people, we are Scrooge-like and nullifying any of the high-sounding rhetoric coming out of political statements."

There was no point in providing free fruit in nurseries and not following the principles through to primary and secondary - the period of largest growth. Good work was being achieved through food co-operatives and breakfast clubs but these "are overlaid on something that is, culturally speaking, so flawed".

The foundation maintains that adhering to consumer choice in schools is "unacceptable" in an area where the catering industry has had little or no training in nutritional standards.

School meals could make a substantial contribution to eliminating food poverty but fewer than half of pupils currently take them. "The fact that standards so frequently fall below what would be considered a healthy choice of food demonstrates how far Scotland stands from delivering that guarantee (of one nutritious meal a day in schools)," the report states.

"In some neighbourhoods of Glasgow, where up to 70 per cent of children are entitled to a school meal without charge, the scale of the opportunity lost is staggering."

The foundation also warns it is "far from clear" that breakfast and afternoon clubs make a contribution to healthy eating. Without proper standards, clubs could be "another source of teaching our children poor eating habits".

England and Wales have had two reviews of standards in school meals since 1997 but Scotland is only operating a voluntary model standards code, the foundation says.

It condemns education authorities and health boards for awarding contracts to suppliers which can cut the most nutritional corners and calls for a review of home economics to raise awareness of nutritional education and cooking skills.

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