As a first step, secondaries should ensure non-fried alternatives to chips are available every day, according to the Scottish Executive's expert panel on school meals, whose draft report was published last week ahead of the parliamentary debate on free school meals.
MSPs voted down any thoughts of universal free meals, principally because of the costs, in favour of better promotion and targeting. The alternative package will eventually cost around a quarter of the measures proposed in the free meals Bill by Tommy Sheridan, John McAllion and Alex Neil.
Another tradition of washing down the chips with fizzy drinks should go, the panel suggests. Older pupils in secondaries should again be coaxed away from canned fizzy drinks by ensuring greater availability of low sugar squashes and flavoured water. Chilled water should also be provided.
But the panel, chaired by Michael O'Neill, education director in North Lanarkshire, rejects a ban on profitable vending machines. It would be "unrealistic" to remove them. Guidance and advice about healthy eating and drinking is a better approach, it says.
The panel has recommended a pound;24.1 million package to be in place in primaries by 2004 and secondaries by 2006 to help transform the quality of school meals and encourage more children to eat them. A similar sum will be needed to introduce smart card systems in secondaries to help remove the stigma of free lunches.
As expected, the panel has opted for a persuasive, whole-school approach to better eating, although it has for the first time set basic nutritional standards for caterers and schools. These will affect how food is cooked and presented and the size of the portions.
A three-stage monitoring process, with HMI involved in quality assessments, will enforce the new dietary regime.
The panel stresses that the school meals service must have "a degree of freedom from competitive commercial pressures" if it is to meet the higher standards and should not be viewed "simply as a commercial trading activity".
Compulsory competitive tendering since 1988 has driven down standards. "In essence, caterers were encouraged to reduce cost wherever possible and this may have led to a reduced focus on approaches to health, diet, choice, portions," the panel states.
The Local Government in Scotland Bill, now in Parliament, will free local authorities from the pressures of competitive tendering, it points out. Meals services will need a period of stability to counter the rundown of nutritional quality.
The panel also challenges sponsorship of dining areas by soft drinks companies. "We felt that education authorities who have managed to improve their facilities and popularise their service without over-branding deserved particular praise," its members say.
Nicol Stephen, Deputy Education Minister, pledged to make radical improvements to school meals in the debate on the Sheridan Bill. "Where we disagree is not on ends, but on means," Mr Stephen said. Ministers will give their final judgment on the way ahead in the autumn.
Leader, page 20