New research has found that Scottish pupils dislike eating in school and consider the lunches on offer to be “disgusting”. Meanwhile, previously unreported figures show that school meals are failing to meet nutritional standards half of the time. Here, we explore what’s going wrong.
What did the research find?
University of Hertfordshire academics explored differences in the lunchtime eating habits of pupils from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds – and it turns out that both groups share a dislike of school meals.
Researchers spoke to 600 pupils aged 13-15 in seven Scottish secondaries and found many disliked eating in school at lunchtime. They complained about queues, inadequate seating and social areas, as well as the quality of the food and drink, which they described as “unhealthy”, “disgusting” and “horrible”.
Were any differences identified in the habits of advantaged and disadvantaged pupils?
In the school serving the most affluent area, parents wielded more influence over the choices their children made and a “parental gaze guided young people’s selections at lunchtime”. Parents had a “direct line” to the kitchen supervisor and “a lot” called to check what their children had been buying.
In the other schools, parents who asked about lunch were “concerned with whether food or drink had been consumed, rather than what had been eaten”.
At the school serving the most advantaged area, pupils were encouraged to make the dining area their own and were allowed to bring in food bought outside of the school. But “young people attending the schools with lower SES [socioeconomic status] felt excluded from the school environment at lunchtime”, and kitchen staff “were frequently described negatively by pupils, who felt rushed and misunderstood”.
Pupils in the most-deprived schools were also pushed out of the dining hall during exam periods, because “the schools did not have sufficient space elsewhere to accommodate pupils taking exams”.
Scottish school meals have to adhere to strict nutritional standards, so can it really be true that they are unhealthy?
Information uncovered by Tes Scotland shows that when school meals are inspected, they fail to hit the correct standards almost half of the time. In 2014-15, 59 schools were inspected by a health and nutrition inspector; 28 fully met the required standards and 31 did not. In 2015-16, 57 schools were inspected; 29 fully met the standards, while 28 did not.
So, lots of schools are flouting the rules?
Not necessarily. When a school is deemed to be falling short, it could point to a more serious breach, such as a deficit of the nutritional standards – for instance, too much sodium or too little fibre or carbohydrate over the course of a week.
But it could also indicate that the school is doing something that would be easy to rectify, such as using the wrong kind of margarine, serving full-fat rather than semi-skimmed milk, or offering flavoured water that is not permitted despite being sugar-free.
What’s the uptake of school meals?
In Scottish primaries, 65 per cent of pupils take a school meal; 44 per cent do so in secondaries. In recent years, the figures for primary have improved because of the introduction of universal free school meals in P1-3. In Glasgow, plans are underway to extend universal free meals into P4; North Lanarkshire plans to provide free meals to disadvantaged pupils, 365 days a year, to tackle “holiday hunger”.
What is the government’s response?
It says it is in the process of reviewing school meals, and that experts from Food Standards Scotland, NHS Health Scotland and Education Scotland have examined the nutritional standards and made recommendations.
A government spokeswoman says: “We are considering views from targeted stakeholders and will launch a formal consultation on the final recommendations in spring 2018.”
Did the researchers come up with solutions?
University of Hertfordshire professor of food and public health Wendy Wills wants teenagers to be treated as “customers” at lunchtime, to expect more attractive eating areas and have a greater influence on menus.