Protecting Scotland’s Future: Improving School Meals

19 September 2019

Last week the Scottish government set out its Programme for Government for 2019-20, called Protecting Scotland’s Future [1]. Tucked away on page 120 is a short section on school meal policy, where the government promises:

“We will be the first part of the UK to set maximum limits for consumption of red processed meat over the course of the school week, part of our new initiative to make school food healthier. By autumn next year, we will:

  • increase the amount of fruit and vegetables served
  • reduce the amount of sugar available throughout the school day
  • encourage the use of fresh, local and sustainable produce.”

Two years ago Obesity Action Scotland launched its Eating Not Feeding campaign to improve the standards of school meals in Scotland, including research looking at primary school menus to count how often healthier and less healthy foods were being served [2]. This summer we repeated that analysis using the April-June 2019 menus to assess whether Scottish primary school menus were improving. So ahead of the Scottish government’s new initiative, we can look at whether primary school meals in Scotland have changed at all over the last couple of years.

What did we do?

We repeated the methods used in the original Eating Not Feeding report. We searched websites of the 32 local authorities in Scotland for primary school lunch menus, chose one week randomly for each menu, and collected data on their food and drink offering (29 council menus used, as Orkney, Shetland and Western Isles (Eilean Siar) Councils only offered data for individual schools). Unfortunately only seven local authorities provided detailed nutritional information.

What did we find in relation to the government’s specific aims?

The government says it’s going to set maximum limits for red processed meat. Our analysis suggests Scottish primary schools are already reducing intake, as sausage and burger offerings are down 41% and 46% respectively since 2017. The government also wants to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables served, and our research found that this was already happening too. In particular, yoghurt and fruit has doubled as a dessert option, and fruit availability has increased five-fold.

The additional benefit of offering fruit instead of puddings is a reduction in sugar, as puddings are the main source of free sugars in schools. Two years ago, the average number of days there was a pudding available was 4.14 days out of 5, because almost all schools had pudding at least four times a week. Now, the average is 2.59. Further, whereas before the average pudding provided between 9-21g of sugar, now the average range is 7-13g. So, high-sugar options are now offered less often, and when they are made available, they’re lower in sugar.

We didn’t analyse the use of fresh, local or sustainable produce. These are not easy things to define, or to measure. However, thirteen Scottish local authorities have now been awarded Food For Life certification by the Soil Association, which is based on various criteria that promote seasonal, local and sustainable food practices [3]. One particular council that’s been doing really well in this regard is Highland council, which recently celebrated its 10th consecutive Food For Life certification [4].

Conclusions

This new data is based on one randomly selected week’s school menu offerings, so it’s a snapshot of availability rather than a thorough analysis of what kids are actually consuming. Nevertheless, by various measures there does seem to be a trend of Scottish school lunch offerings getting healthier. If the Scottish government can introduce further new initiatives on top of this existing trend, Scotland’s children can only benefit.

 

[1] https://www.gov.scot/publications/protecting-scotlands-future-governments-programme-scotland-2019-20/  

[2] https://obesityactionscotland.org/campaigns/eating-not-feeding

[3] https://www.foodforlife.org.uk/schools/criteria-and-guidance

[4] https://www.soilassociation.org/our-work-in-scotland/scotland-news/2019/september/10/highland-council-celebrate-ten-years-of-food-for-life/