Slimline canteens

PERHAPS it is no surprise that the expert panel on school meals has opted for a carrot and stick approach to improving the pretty appalling state of pupils' lunchtime offerings. The carefully picked panel needed no extra ministerial instruction to rule out Tommy Sheridan's Bill on free meals for all, a financial commitment too far for an administration still wincing over the cost of free care for the elderly and the scrapping of student tuition fees. That should not detract from the arguments.

Many supported the concept of free, nutritious meals on health and education grounds and it could have gained cross-party support had it emerged earlier in this Parliament. It was a bold enough initiative that could have grabbed the attention of an increasingly sceptical public - even if it had profound practical difficulties, not least in the logistics of running meals for all at the one time and in providing the facilities.

That is now in the past and we will have to judge the Executive's initiatives, based on the panel's recommendations, on their merits over the next four years. It is still a significant move forward and deserves every support - another indicator of the Parliament making a difference. The carrot is more cash to improve the quality and amount of food and raise standards of service in kitchens and dining halls. And not before time. As the panel has established, costs have been pared to the bone under competitive tendering; but the cost has been unacceptable nutritional standards. That era, hopefully, will soon be gone.

The panel has not, as some demanded, backed draconian edicts. Chips and colas and vending machines will not be banned tomorrow - unless schools and local authorities choose to do so. The stick lies in the tougher inspection regime, supported by regular monitoring. Within the last two weeks, schools have been reminded of their broader civic and health duties: physical activity and healthy eating are now firmly on the agenda.

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