A starter for a healthy and prosperous nation

28th September 2001 at 01:00
Legislation is necessary to improve the quality of the school meals service, says Tommy Sheridan

THE Free School Meals Bill, designed to deliver a nutritious meal and drink for all children attending local authority schools in Scotland is primarily an anti-poverty and pro-health measure.

The school meals service today is simply not good enough. Incredibly, there are no nutrition standards applied across Scotland and caterers that supply school meals are not required to hold any nutritional health qualification. Many parents will be shocked to learn of this fact.

The current free meals service is reserved only for the very poorest. Children whose parents are in receipt of income support qualify for a free school meal. But children whose parents are so low paid that they qualify for working families tax credit are excluded. Children whose parents are low paid but not low paid enough to qualify for working families tax credit are also excluded. Hundreds of thousands of children from families on low incomes are left without any state provision or assistance.

One of the consequences of this acutely narrow free meal service is that it tends to be a poor service, catering only for the very poorest children. The provision of a universal free meal will immediately raise the quality of the service as all parents become concerned by the standards of meals. The Bill will also for the first time in decades set nutritional health standards and allow them to be monitored while also providing for a nutritious drink of milk or other suitable liquid.

Although these are the core motivations behind the Free School Meals Bill, there are other very positive consequences. Many in the media and others who lack political vision harp on about the cost. The top end estimation is around pound;240 million. That figure is based on Finland's service with no allowance made for the higher standard of living within that country. Across Scotland it works out at pound;1.68 per child. In terms of future health and educational benefits this is a tiny price to pay to deliver a healthier and consequently better educated generation.

The Bill is not without its challenges. How do we guarantee that every child will find the meal provided appealing and tasty enough to actually consume it? The answer is we can't guarantee it, but surely we can rise to the challenge. We could provide a tremendous boost for Scottish agriculture, if we try to harness some of the healthier products we produce in Scotland including oats, berries, potatoes and other beneficial vegetables and fruit.

The benefits and advantages of this Bill being implemented should not be measured in one or two years but in eight or 10 years. All medical and nutrition experts agree that improving the health of children now will lead to a healthier population later. Given the fact that coronary heart disease and strokes are often directly related to poor nutrition, then the benefits and indeed savings in terms of the NHS far outweigh any costs.

When you add the effect on Scottish agriculture and the reintroduction of proper hospitable and attractive dining areas with motivated staff, then you realise that we are not just improving children's health and assisting their educational potential but also creating jobs and directly regenerating the economy as well.

As a socialist, I think we have always got to think big. It's important to have a vision of the type of society you wish to create. Some have suggested that rich kids should not receive a free school meal. The fact is that the really rich kids don't attend local authority schools because their rich parents buy an education jam-packed with small class sizes, curriculum choices and nutritional meals.

Targeting is merely a euphemism for means testing. Means testing is humiliating and leads to one in five children eligible for free school meals in Scotland failing to take up their entitlement.

We do not means test TV licences for the over-75s. We do not means test winter allowance payments for our pensioners. We do not means test pensioners for central heating installation. We do not means test mothers for child benefit. We do not means test children who attend local authority schools. Why the hell then should we means test children to determine whether or not we feed them properly while they are at school?

Let us raise our collective sights, stop the humiliating means tests and provide our children with a free nutritious meal and drink as part of their everyday school life.

Tommy Sheridan is Scottish Socialist Party MSP for Glasgow.

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