Nutrition - Why free school meals are the dish of the day

14th February 2014 at 00:00
As they are extended to all children in their first three years of primary, Julia Belgutay finds that, despite concerns about budget and capacity, one school will relish having more mouths to feed

When the promise of making free meals available to all P1-3 students becomes reality next year, the dining hall at Antonine Primary School in Glasgow will inevitably become even busier than it already is.

Every day, the catering assistants at the Drumchapel school serve lunch to more than 200 children - of these, 120 are already entitled to a free meal because of their personal circumstances.

In the school community, there is wide agreement that the Scottish government's announcement last month of free school meals for all early primary students will help to tackle poverty and benefit the children in multiple ways.

"For some of our kids, this is the main meal of the day," said Antonine headteacher Wendy Cameron. "They get a wider choice here than some of them would get at home."

The effects of bad nutrition on children can be significant. Eating food that does not contain the appropriate nutrients for an extended period of time could have a serious impact on a child's development, explained Donald MacGregor, consultant paediatrician at Ninewells Hospital in Dundee and spokesman for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.

"It depends on how persistent the issue is," he said. "If children are consistently having food without iron, for example, they will not develop as well."

Delicious and nutritious

It was also important for children to consume sufficient vitamins, as they helped the body to fight infections, he added. "One meal a day at school can make a significant difference. The other thing is that you are hoping that some of those children can inspire their families."

Sandra McPherson, catering assistant at Antonine for Cordia, which provides catering services to Glasgow City Council schools, agreed. She said that she and her colleagues were all too aware that not every child would be offered a nutritious meal when they got home. Because of this, they always made sure that the students had plenty of healthy fruit and vegetables on their plates.

"We encourage them to take everything, because they might not come home to a dinner," added Julia McCreadie, head of facilities management at Cordia.

What the children find on the menu at Antonine is a far cry from the school dinners of lore. With homemade soup available every day, as well as a number of healthy hot-food options, salad, vegetables, fruit and treats, the children are given choice and variety as well as a balanced meal. Custard, chocolate pudding and jam doughnuts are noticeable only by their absence.

Food provided in Scottish schools had to comply with a host of recent laws, Ms McCreadie said, but it was also important to serve meals that children would actually want to eat. "We do a lot of groundwork at our schools, taking on board the views of children, schools and parents," Ms McCreadie explained. Many students stopped eating in school with the recent change of regulations, she added, because it led to the disappearance of chips and fast food from the menu.

"Over the past few years we have had to work hard to encourage the uptake of school lunch," she said. Among those entitled to a free meal, the proportion taking it had increased from 82 per cent to 90 per cent since 2009, she stressed, and 65 per cent of students on roll now ate school lunches.

Glasgow councillor Stephen Curran, executive member for education and young people, said: "Glasgow has been sector-leading in its innovative ways to encourage our young people to adopt healthy eating habits and an active lifestyle."

The new policy will mean that thousands more children across Scotland are entitled to a free school lunch - regardless of their deprivation level and background. Cordia already supplies more than 20,000 lunches every day in primary schools alone, and Ms McCreadie expects that the uptake will increase significantly next year, perhaps becoming as high as 70 per cent.

And there will be a number of benefits to the children and the whole school community from that, Ms Cameron said. To begin with, giving lunch to every P1-3 child would tackle the stigma associated with being entitled to a free meal. "As a child, I was highly conscious of this and, much to my mother's dismay, I refused to accept free school dinners from an early age," she said. "A discussion with our pupil council highlighted that this is still an issue for some children.

"Hopefully, this will be the first step on the road to free school meals for everyone."

Turning the tables

Ms Cameron said that eating together in the dining hall also had social benefits, and taught the children table manners, as well as how to use cutlery properly and tidy up after themselves - skills some sadly did not learn at home.

More children eating a school lunch would also, of course, decrease the number of packed lunches, which bring their own issues. "For many parents, the alternative is to give their child a packed lunch. However, packed lunches are nearly always less nutritious than a cooked meal," Ms Cameron said.

And Antonine's janitor, Martin Lawson, explained that it was not just the obviously unhealthy choices of chocolate and crisps that were problematic: "There had been a problem with unsuitable foods being brought in. One example we had was satay chicken. What no one considered was that it came on wooden skewers, which were a big safety risk."

The school lunch menu was an opportunity for the children to broaden their horizons, too. The children could try a variety of foods in the dinner hall, the catering assistants said. And many found their tastes were more eclectic than they thought. "They don't always like the look of it. Kiwis are a good example. Some don't like that green colour to start with. But when they try it, they like it," explained Denise Green, one of the assistants.

There are now many children who specifically ask for vegetables. But, of course, not all foods have been a hit. Brussels sprouts have not found favour with many of the young customers, and green beans were not among their preferred options either. "They do not have to finish everything, but they are encouraged to give everything a good go," Ms Cameron said.

Happy customers

Nicola Reside, chair of the school's parent council, said that there was a clear difference in eating habits between her son and her daughter. While her son was a fussy eater, her daughter, who regularly had school meals, was not. Knowing that the students would be provided with healthy food at school also gave parents peace of mind, she added.

Strikingly, all the children seem aware of the benefits of eating a school lunch. Alana, a member of the student council, said that it had taken her three attempts to start liking tuna pasta. "I feel nice and full after my lunch," Toni-Lee, another student council member, added. Her friend Max agreed: "Sometimes I am a bit grumpy before lunch because I am hungry. I don't like being in the second sitting, because I want my lunch. Then I don't feel grumpy any more."

The student council members highlighted other advantages to having a school lunch: "It is a chance to see friends who are not in your class," Dylan said.

Not everyone, however, is convinced that widening access to free meals is the best use of government funding. It is expected that free school meals will cost the government #163;13 million in 2014-15 and #163;42 million in 2015-16 - financed through money that was made available after the UK government announced a similar policy only weeks before.

Greg Dempster, general secretary of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland, acknowledged that there would be benefits from offering free meals to more children. But he pointed out that core budgets and staffing levels were already under strain. "Free school meals are putting more pressure on schools, as well as taking up funding."

John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, agreed: "This is great and will bring benefits. But if they were offered the cash equivalent, this might not be the top priority for directors."

Mr Dempster also insisted that there were concerns over the practicalities. "For us, the issues we have been talking about more are those around capacity and staffing." Many headteachers may have to consider staggering lunch times, but this could have a knock-on effect on alternative uses of dinner halls - for example, for physical education classes. There would also be staffing issues connected with supervising the different lunch groups, he added.

In 2013, 61,757 of the more than 81,000 primary students entitled to a school meal made use of that opportunity. A significant increase in that number will require months of preparation. Ms McCreadie said that Cordia was about to enter a planning phase, during which additional needs in terms of supplies and space would be assessed.

Headteacher Ms Cameron added: "The challenges we have to consider are around accommodating the students. We can't have everyone in here at the same time. But we will find a solution for that." Lunchtimes, she pointed out, were already staggered at the school, with children split into sittings.

And with school lunches part of a wider healthy eating agenda, the benefits of the change would still outweigh the challenges, she stressed. The school was engaged in a number of initiatives, and was, for example, considering how to support children in making healthier snack choices. More children getting a free school lunch could "only help", Ms Cameron said.

Dr MacGregor agreed: "This is not a panacea. But it may create significant change for some children."

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