The head of the company which provides school meals in Glasgow will today (Monday May 17) call for “flexibility” on increasingly strict healthy-eating rules which he says are “chasing kids into the hands of fast food shops, chippies and snack vans” outside school gates.
Fergus Chambers, managing director of Cordia – the arm’s length external organisation (ALEO) set up by Glasgow City Council to run its frontline services including school meals – speaks this afternoon at the Scottish Diet Conference in the city’s Hilton Grosvenor Hotel.
It his talk, entitled “The School Meals Story”, he will say that the Scottish Government’s healthy eating guidelines are basically “a good thing”, but that some flexibility must be allowed on schools meals content as pupils were voting with their stomachs by rejecting school food which by law now must include only minimal levels of fat, salt and sugar.
He will say that instead they are making a “100-metre dash” at lunchtime to the nearest fast food outlets which were “only too willing to cash in”, to fill up on food loaded with all three of the offending ingredients.
His presentation will carry pictures and nutritional breakdown of fast food bought at outlets near schools, and frequented by pupils.
At the conference run by the University of Glasgow’s Faculty of Medicine, subtitled “Bringing lasting change to Scotland’s diet”, Mr Chambers will tell a packed audience of health professionals, policy makers and academics that school meals uptake in Glasgow secondary schools has fallen to an average of 38%, with some schools as low as 24%.
His view is that the fall in meal uptake has been caused by the implementation of the Scottish Government’s Hungry For Success school meals initiative in August 2006, compounded by the implementation of the Nutritional Requirements for Food and Drink in Schools (Scotland) Regulations 2008.
Mr Chambers, who has been in charge of Glasgow’s school meals operation since 1996, previously with the City Council’s Direct and Care Services department, said: “I absolutely appreciate and accept that the Scottish diet, with its high levels of fat, salt and sugar, had to be addressed and that the Food Standards Agency Scotland has been moving in the right direction.
“But I also now believe that the most recent rules, which allow no flexibility to those providing school meals, have fallen victim to the Law of Unintended Consequences – which states that an intervention in a complex system invariably creates unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes.
“In this case that undesirable outcome has been that many school pupils now have an even worse diet due to their desertion of school meals in favour of some of the most unhealthy food you could imagine.”
“Everybody at today’s conference wants the school meals service to thrive, and everybody also wants to improve diet and nutrition. But my concern is that those making the decisions on the latest rules have not fully listened to practitioners.
“Scottish school meals statistics show that 30,000 school lunches per day have been lost since 2002. That’s 5.7m meals per annum. As recently as the year 2000, uptake levels were 69%, they are now at 38%.
“Fat, salt and sugar levels are now set so low as to be almost non-existent. We can no longer sell diet drinks, flavoured water or even fruit juice of any reasonable portion size. Confectionery, including most home baking, is banned – yet pupils can walk out the gate and buy anything they want.
“If we, the people who supply school meals, are not allowed more flexibility in content, the health of the nation’s kids is likely to get worse rather than better.
“We are attempting to compete with the lunchtime fast food industry with at least one hand tied behind our backs. The school meals service has become a punchball for the Scottish diet.
“We need a lasting solution which is practical to avoid the 100 metre dash. That could involve keeping kids in the playground at lunchtime, using licensing laws to clamp down on shops selling unhealthy food to children or banning food vans within a large radius of school gates.
“None of these is realistically going to happen, and I believe the answer is to allow the school meals service to compete by providing food which is healthy – but which still has the flavour to entice kids to buy it.”