Fruits of their labour turn sour

4th December 2009 at 00:00
Chocolate and other sweets are banned in Scottish schools. But pupils passionate about fair trading are fighting back

The fairtrade stall at Dyce Academy in Aberdeen has traded once a week for the past three years. Now new rules, banning sweets in school, have put it out of business.

The stall sold chocolate, fruit and nuts, says S6 pupil and member of the school's Fairtrade group, Erin Young. But chocolate was their bestseller and, with it outlawed since August, the stall is no longer viable. "Because of the 2007 Act, all we can sell is fruit," she says. "We used to subsidise it with the profit we made from the chocolate and other things, but now we cannot reduce the price of the fruit, there is no point in selling it at all."

Pupils are heading instead to Asda, "two seconds" from the school gate, to get their sugar fix. So rather than cocoa farmers benefiting, big business is, says fellow group member Laura Stebbings.

Laura, who is in S3, has petitioned parliament on behalf of the Dyce Academy Fairtrade group, calling for pupils to be allowed "to act responsibly in respect to their own health" and "to learn about fair trade by running stalls in their schools which sell Fairtrade products".

Pupils at Knowetop Primary in North Lanarkshire have handed in a petition with similar demands. Children in P7 have formed a pressure group, Knowetop Pupils Against Sweet Ban, calling for the Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) Act 2007, the legislation that brought about the ban, to be amended to allow schools to sell Fairtrade confectionery.

Laura, Erin and Julia Standing recently gave evidence on the issue to MSPs sitting on the Scottish Parliament's public petitions committee. The politicians promised to write to the Government, highlighting this "unintended consequence of the legislation".

According to Laura, running the stall had given her a head for business and made her feel good because she was helping others. The stall made a weekly profit of pound;50-pound;80, most of which went to Fairtrade. "It helped us to realise the actual value of money, such as how much so much money will get you and what the money can do for other people," she says.

Julia felt it was "nice to know that you are making a difference in the world", and Erin said she now considered herself a "global citizen".

There were other Fairtrade products the school could sell, conceded depute head Ruth Teehan, but young people were not interested in buying them. So when the stall went out of business, the school's most prominent means of promoting Fairtrade also disappeared.

She says: "There are many other Fairtrade products, but young people will not buy things such as tapioca and brown sugar; confectionery is their currency. Surely it is better to capitalise on that, to create a profile for Fairtrade within the school, than to have the pupils spend their money at a multinational store?"

MSPs found the arguments hard to resist. Even SNP MSP Nigel Don, whose wife helped write the nutritional guidelines, said: "You raise an extraordinarily important issue."

The pupils' most vociferous supporter was Green MSP Robin Harper, who called the legislation "bizarre". People had to learn to eat a balanced diet, he said, confiding that he himself had recently lost a stone in weight, "eating just a little less of everything".

"The Government should be asked to give the issue some serious thought," he concluded.

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