The Scottish Poverty and Research Unit based at Glasgow Caledonian University published surprising figures last week revealing the low uptake of free school lunches in both primary and secondary schools across Scotland. A quarter of all primary children entitled to a free school meal and four out of 10 secondary students do not take up the offer of something free to eat at lunchtime on a typical school day.
This seems to go against the general societal shift in how we view food poverty: we live in an era where the use of food banks has become normalised and where grocery shopping at bargain German supermarkets is seen as something to flaunt rather than be ashamed of. The general assumption would be that the opportunity of a free meal would be snapped up rather than ignored, yet thousands of families across Scotland would rather pay for a takeaway lunch or provide their own packed lunch than have their offspring eat for free.
In the past, this reluctance to eat a free school lunch would have been attributed to the stigma of having a different-coloured dinner ticket so that everyone knew the family's financial situation, but with the introduction of pre-loaded smart cards, there should be little knowledge of who qualifies for a free school meal.
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And while children (teenagers especially) can be more sensitive to what sets them apart from their peers, I'm not sure that these figures tell us that these students still fear the shame of poverty. After all, many students are still using their cards at breakfast or at breaktime for a free roll and sausage or for a bottle of water during the course of the school day, but are turning away from the school dinner hall at lunchtime.
There are pull and push factors involved which make school lunches a less attractive proposition than the alternatives. Urban schools are surrounded by myriad takeaway shops and vans offering special offers to entice schoolchildren in with food that has been pre-prepared especially to meet the lunchtime rush.
The fact that it is unhealthy is part of the attraction. Consider having to wait in a long queue for a calorie-counted, healthily balanced meal, where the item you want might be sold out by the time you reach the front of the queue – you can see why the lure of kebab shops and chippies are causing cash-strapped families to spend part of the tight family budget on keeping the children happy, rather than taking the food offered for free.
What can schools do? An extended lunch break to help deal with lunchtime queues would give pupils even more time to travel further away from school to reach other takeaway shops, while staggered lunch breaks would be an organisational nightmare. And stopping pupils from leaving school grounds over lunch as they do in France might not make free school meals more popular. After all, a quarter of primary school pupils don't use their free school meal yet most if not all primary schools don't allow the children to leave school at lunchtime.
Some serious investment into school infrastructure is required. Kebab meat and munchie boxes for lunch could lead to a lifetime of poor eating habits but increasing the dinner hall size would reduce the queues, while improving the cooking facilities would help make healthy eating a tastier option.
This investment would lead to healthier, more alert pupils learning in the post-lunch lunch period – when teachers are currently more accustomed to a slump in energy levels.
Gordon Cairns is a teacher of English who works in Scotland