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International school meals day – How Scottish local government is doing their part

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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

For this International School Meals Day, catering teams from across Scotland will not only be showcasing an international and diverse menu, but they will also be making the most of regional favourites, local produce, and healthy cooking techniques. Across Scotland’s 32 local authorities, thousands of caterers work tirelessly to provide high-quality, nutritionally balanced, sustainably sourced menus, with around 400,000 school meals being served every day across Scotland’s schools.

ASSIST FM and Food for Life Scotland would like to use International School Meals Day to celebrate how far the sector has come, with Scotland often leading the way in introducing policies and regulations to support a healthier, fairer and more sustainable school meals system. Whilst there is always more to be done, it is also important to reflect on some of the positive progress that has been made.

Nutritious school meals

Scotland continues to be recognised internationally as one of the frontrunners in legislation for the increased provision of healthy and nutritionally balanced school lunches and has the most stringent school food standards of any UK nation. The Nutritional Requirements for Food and Drink in Schools (2020) sets out the amount of salt, sugars, and fats in school meals along with building on promoting health awareness within the school community.

Working with local suppliers

Caterers across Scotland work with suppliers both large and small to help deliver meals to pupils. Local authority catering teams are building networks with local producers to reduce food miles and strengthen local economies. This includes adapting procurement processes to make it easier for smaller producers to supply to schools. Caterers are also working closely with suppliers to innovate and adapt products, for example, reducing salt or sugar in recipes and reducing the amount of packaging when goods are delivered.

Sustainable and ethical sourcing

There is now a focus on sourcing goods that have been produced in a sustainable manner and the whole school meal sector in Scotland has come a long way in driving up standards. This is a particular focus of the Food for Life Served Here Award, now held by over half of Scotland’s local authorities, which states in its criteria that only meat from farms that meet UK welfare standards and free-range eggs can be served and no fish from the Marine Conservation Society ‘fish to avoid’ list can be included on menus. To hold a Food for Life Served Here Silver or Gold Award, 5% and 10% of ingredient spend respectively must be spent on organic produce.

Universal Free School Meals

Scotland was the first UK nation to begin the roll-out of Universal Free School Meals (UFSMs) across primary schools, with all children in P1-5 now entitled to the service. The government has committed to realising universal primary school meals by the end of Parliament in 2026. This must remain a priority as an increasing number of families struggle with the cost-of-living crisis and depend on school lunches as a nutritional safety net. The eventual goal must be that all pupils across primary and secondary have access to at least one healthy and nutritious meal, served in a high-quality environment within the school.

If this is to be achieved, the Scottish Government must prioritise providing adequate funding for school meals. This must account for inflationary pressures and the need to serve quality food, but also should acknowledge the need for improved infrastructure and facilities as catering teams work to serve an increased number of pupils. Continued collaboration between national government, local government, industry bodies, such as Food for Life Scotland and ASSIST FM, and catering teams will be a key part of this process. We must turn to caterers, as experts in their field, to advise on how the rollout of UFSMs at scale can be achieved.

Changing the food environment

As a sector, we must also aim to increase the uptake of the school meals provided. Uptake can be affected by a whole range of factors, from the length of queues in dining halls to the amount of choice on offer and the information displayed about what’s available. Local Authority caterers have been working hard with pupils and parents following the pandemic to return pupils to a hot, nutritionally balanced lunch following the resumption of full services.

The best way to promote a positive food culture within a school is to empower school cooks. For example, the Food for Life Scotland programme offers training to catering teams signed up to the programme to teach them all about the seasonality and provenance of the produce they use, and to support them to come up with innovative recipe ideas.

Scotland has a proud tradition of being an international melting pot and so school menus are also evolving to be as inclusive and as diverse as possible. Increasingly caterers use pupil and parental feedback to help shape services so that they can offer an option that works for everyone.

Local Authority caterers promote inclusion by involving school teams in the menu design and development process. This ensures they are also better equipped to provide pupils with information about the food they are eating. Caterers are on the front line and have a unique understanding of how we can encourage young people to make positive food and drink choices as they develop and grow. This includes looking at how food is laid out in dining halls and using lunchtimes as an opportunity to educate children about the importance of a balanced meal. School caterers are already doing much of this great work, but as a society, we need to make sure they have the resources they need to fulfil this pivotal role.

An opportunity for the future

With all of these positive steps, the sector needs to make sure it continues to move in the right direction. School meals are an investment, not a cost, and this is truer now than ever as we face a cost-of-living crisis, as well as interconnected climate, nature and health crises. Scotland has a real opportunity to lead the way in school meals, particularly as national and local governments draft their Good Food Nation Plans. These must reflect the importance of school meals to our young people’s health, as well as the positive impact sustainable and local sourcing can have on the environment and the local economy. Catering teams across Scotland are doing an amazing job, we must make sure they continue to have the funding, resources, equipment and skills needed to continue.

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