Jury still out on free school meals

24th October 2008 at 01:00

More research is needed into the impact of free school meals before claims can be made that they improve health, claim independent researchers Ipsos MORI, hired by the Government to evaluate Scotland's free school meals pilot in P1-3.

During the pilot, according to the researchers, "many children" were found to "pick" at their food, eating only the bits they liked.

In what amounts to an endorsement of the scheme's critics, they want a more thorough investigation of what pupils were "actually eating".

Fiona Hyslop, the Education Secretary, claimed at the SNP conference in Perth at the weekend that free school meals would help "turn our nation off fatty foods and on to a healthy, nutritious diet".

That remained to be seen, according to one of the report's authors, Lorraine Murray. "To fully examine the nutritional and health benefits, you would need a longer-term study which looks at exactly what pupils are eating, rather than just the fact that they are taking a school meal," she said. "It is not that simple: their nutritional intake depends on what bits they are eating."

The researchers wrote: "An important issue to consider, which was outwith the remit of this research given the short lead-in time for the trial, is what pupils are actually eating. There was evidence that many pupils picked at their school meals, eating only the bits they liked. In particular, it was suggested that some of the healthier foods, such as vegetables and soup, were frequently left untouched by some pupils."

Such comments are likely to entrench the Government's critics in the authorities, over half of which were revealed in last week's TESS to be refusing to back free school meals in P1-3.

East Dunbartonshire Council leader, Labour's Rhonda Geekie, said: "Were they eating healthily? How much food was wasted? I don't think it was good information."

The Independent leader of Angus Council, Bob Myles, felt the evaluation process had "not been exhaustive", and had been "skewed" to the result the Government wanted.

The pilot, which ran in five local authorities and involved 35,000 children, showed that, when free school meals were introduced uptake rose from 53 per cent to 75 per cent. It also found there were some early health benefits. The trial, according to researchers, provided children with the opportunity to try new food, and some youngsters were asking at home for foods they had tried in school.

But it was "unclear" how many children were doing so and the extent to which children were eating more healthily at home, the researchers found. "On other potential benefits, such as whether parents felt they knew more about healthy foods and were buying healthier foods for the home, the evidence is also unclear," they said in their evaluation.

A dining-room supervisor interviewed in the study observed the children tended to leave "anything green". When it came to soup, the supervisor said: "They'll dip their roll in and dip their roll in, until all that's left are the vegetables in the bottom and then that goes in the bin."

Some councils declared the trial a success, due to the rise in uptake. Allan Wright, chairman of Moray Council's policy and resources committee, said it was "good news for the health of our children". But he said the extra cost of Pounds 870,000 would not be covered by the Government's allocation.

In Fife, the council is also well-disposed towards the policy which Brian Kirkaldy, a senior education manager, described as "a great success", but is wrestling with how to meet the estimated Pounds 2.5 million cost.

In her address to the SNP conference last week, Ms Hyslop insisted that the policy had been "fully funded" to the tune of Pounds 30 million.

But the financial pressures facing councils go beyond those brought about by free school meals. Highland said it would implement the policy, but pointed out it was facing a Pounds 20 million shortfall in its 2009-10 budget, Pounds 14 million of which was due to "spiralling energy costs".

Some councils, such as West Lothian and West Dunbartonshire, felt the policy was affordable. Dumfries and Galloway said it had "prudently anticipated the need for funds".

www.scotland.gov.ukPublications20080829114033; www.scotland.gov.ukPublications20080829113958


- uptake of free school meals rose from 53 per cent to 75 per cent overall. Among those already registered for free school meals, it rose from 89 per cent to 94; among those not registered, it rose from 41 to 69 per cent

- a quarter of children were still not taking free school meals, mainly because some were "fussy eaters"

- uptake was higher in the initial few weeks of the trial due to "novelty factor", and "finicky eaters" later reverting to packed lunches

- options on the menu on any given day strongly influenced uptake; pizza and sausages were popular, but it was not as simple as healthy = unpopular

- the costs of the trial varied widely from Pounds 1.79 per additional meal in Fife to Pounds 4.65 in Scottish Borders

- total additional costs in the first 100 days were: Glasgow, Pounds 649,461; Fife, Pounds 546,144; Scottish Borders, Pounds 484,437; East Ayrshire, Pounds 285, 225; and West Dunbartonshire, Pounds 192,404

- 39 per cent of schools expected problems, but only 21 per cent reported the trial had created practical difficulties

- the main challenges were the size of the dining area, and time; these were overcome by, for instance, staggering pupils' arrival times.

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