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School dinners are so 'minging'

David Henderson looks at what's next on the plate for the Scottish Executive's national standards on nutrition.

IT was lunchtime down the Ayrshire coast on her home patch and the vegan Education Minister was tucking into a plate of freshly sliced tomato, garnished by onion rings and salad- as best she could under questioning.

A perfect and healthy snack which would ensure the brain cells were recharged for her afternoon appointments.

But North Ayrshire secondary pupils told Cathy Jamieson what it is really like in many schools. "It's minging," one 13-year-old girl said. "Almost everyone has to settle for chips and cheese and a fizzy drink. There's not a plate that goes by without chips on it."

Her pal confirmed the experience. "It's dreadful and the standard is very low. Everything's very dry. I'd like more fruit and vegetables, but it's much more expensive to buy better quality."

A third said: "Sometimes you have to stand to eat your lunch."

Ms Jamieson was left in no doubt that mass catering falls woefully short of the Scottish Executive's emerging national standards on school meals and nutrition.

There was generally no choice, sandwiches were made from the cheapest and most unappealing ingredients, portions were small, there was little left once the long queues subsided and nowhere to socialise. The swipe card system did not work and canteen outlets were sponsored by Irn-Bru and Cadbury: everything seemed to be done for profit.

But how would they react if the vending machines were removed, the minister enquired. There would be an outcry, replied the pupils in best policy ambiguity.

The catering service argues that if the machines went pupils would head down to the local shops. They have to be weaned off instead.

Such views mirror the findings of the national inquiry, Hungry for Success, published last June, which is now the basis for long-term action on a better diet.

Ms Jamieson earlier told a conference run by Children in Scotland of ministers' determination to transform eating habits.

"We are conscious of the need for healthy food to be available throughout the school day, not just at the start of it. Almost half of all Scottish children take school meals and it's very important we get that provision right. For many children, the school meal is the most important meal of their day," she said.

She pledged to improve the nutritional value of school meals and cut fatty, sugary and salty foods. More minerals and vitamins would be included. Ms Jamieson admitted: "I do know as a parent that meals have to be appetising and interesting and young people have to want to eat them."

She also wants to end the stigma of free meals. "There is no point in having children who have a school meal provided for them to be given dinner tickets of different colours, told to stand in different queues or take their meals at a different time."

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