A free lunch is just the tonic

MR SKINNER was our maths teacher. We used to get four of the belt if we misspelt "paralell". Language across the curriculum, see. Or at least across your palm.

Mr Glasgow was our new gym teacher. He took one look at our scrawny frames and made us hang parallel to each other from the wall-bars until we dropped. Following the Latin dictum, of course: a tortured mind in a tortured body.

So whenever the concept of a parallel universe recurs, we are well-prepared.

The school meals Bill, introduced by Tommy Sheridan and sponsored by John McAllion and Alex Neil, is the best single thing that could happen in schools now. It is both practical and visionary. Yet, in their parallel universe, we see its detractors. They say it is targeted on those who can afford to pay. They say it is too expensive. Ultimately they say that they agree with Margaret Thatcher.

The truth is that Lady Thatcher wasn't just the Milk Snatcher of her first incarnation. She was also the Fat Hatcher. Second time round, she deregulated school meals and removed nutritional standards. Smaller, dearer platefuls of fattier food followed in many authorities, and now compete limply for custom with the chippy van parked at the school gates.

We're lucky. In Stromness Academy, we have a sublime range of choice: home-made, two-course, fish, vegetables, curries, stir fries, yoghurt, fruit. For pound;1.20. Yet even here many pupils opt for a polystyrene tray of chips, a chocolate bar and a bottle of e-numbers. Higher standards? Forget it. We struggle for attention all afternoon. Long-term health risks loom.

What operates in this whole arena is the tyranny of cool. Preferring salty or sugary branded snacks to home-made wholesome food shows how many youngsters, both rich and poor, have surrendered to capitalism in the name of fashion.

The cost of a daily nutritious meal for all local authority children, including free milk for growing bones, would be pound;174 million. That is less than 1 per cent of the Scottish Parliament's budget, less than the annual Scottish portion of the costs of Trident. Deferred savings to the health service are likely to be well in excess of pound;174 million annually, just as all prevention is cheaper than cure. Immediate vital benefits in classroom concentration and behaviour would show.

These arguments converge: this is a socialist issue. We are talking a universal service here: isn't that the kind 90 per cent of Scots believe in? And wouldn't it be dandy if we had all MSPs in the "same" universe as their electors? I'm writing to mine.

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