Older pupils and parents could provide the solution to canteen staffing problems when free school meals for all P1-3 children come into effect next year, senior figures have said.
Many schools are concerned about the logistics of providing significantly more meals, but a children's food conference in Glasgow last week heard that help could come from within institutions. Robin Gourlay, the Scottish government's policy lead on public sector food, advised that older pupils had become involved in serving food during free school meals trial projects in five local authorities in 2007-08.
Hugh Fraser, education director at the Highland Council, said this was "the kind of thing that we need to look at, and are looking at". Small and rural schools are expected to find it particularly challenging to implement the new policy.
Mr Fraser, who was representing the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland and chairs the working group for the government's Better Eating; Better Learning report, told TESS that he was "extremely interested" in encouraging parents and other community members into schools to help provide meals.
The idea of help from older pupils was also welcomed by Iain Ellis, chair of the National Parent Forum of Scotland, who told TESS: "Involving children in preparing and serving food gives them skills and knowledge about nutrition, hygiene, helping others, and the importance of eating together as a way of making friends and developing social and interpersonal skills."
Minister for learning Alasdair Allan told the conference that the free school meals policy presented particular difficulties around facilities, space and time, and he reiterated the especial problems faced by rural schools.
Andrew Kennedy, head of facilities management in East Ayrshire, said the 2007-08 experiment had thrown up only a few schools that did not have the physical space to accommodate all pupils for meals. But demands had varied widely, with anything between two and 150 extra pupils showing up for lunch. Mr Kennedy advised local authorities to reduce the number of options on menus and to look at timetable changes.
Mr Gourlay said the trials had shown the benefits of setting tables in advance with cutlery, napkins and bread as this promoted "a more sociable eating experience and is more efficient and helps the wee ones settle and feel welcomed".
The importance of introducing good eating habits from an early age was highlighted in research from the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, which showed that some secondary pupils who bought lunch outside school were eating food that instantly exceeded the recommended daily allowance of fat.
Fiona Crawford, the centre's public health programme manager, said a 2012 Food Standards Agency study found that more than 50 per cent of pupils bought food outside school at lunchtime. "We were quite alarmed by the toxicity of some of these foods," she added.
But secondary pupils may not be as hostile towards eating in school as is often assumed. Ms Crawford highlighted a 2008-09 Edinburgh project in which pupils were made to eat school meals for the first term of the year, after which uptake remained fairly high.
Highland Council dietitian David Rex told TESS that making pupils stay in for school meals during the first term of S1 could be an effective policy. Pupils' first experience of buying food outside school would then take place in the cold month of January and the novelty might wear off quickly, he said.
Older pupils often had negative perceptions of school canteens without ever having tried them, Mr Rex added, but early feedback suggested that they were often surprised by what was on offer if they were forced to remain for in-house meals.
But one delegate whose daughter attends a new-build secondary school said that some pupils could not be accommodated for meals. Her daughter's school had 1,500 students but only 400 places for lunch, and there were not enough lockers for storing packed lunches, so pupils were forced to find food elsewhere, she said.