Free School Meals

Steve Jardine Show – BBC Radio Scotland 

March 2018

I was asked to comment on an initiative currently being piloted in North Lanarkshire as part of the 365 Programme of providing a cooked meal not only during the school day but at weekends and holidays as well via breakfast groups and lunch clubs. Scottish Parliament voted in support of this, recognising that children are enduring weekend and holiday hunger and that the pressure on food banks increases especially in holidays. This is in line with the National School Lunches programme and is supported by a finding by a recent NUT England research that 80% of children have poor eating/nutrition in school holidays.

On a commonsense level eating a healthy, balanced and consistent diet is key to physical health and wellbeing but perhaps less obvious is the essential role this plays in supporting the brain’s health and optimal function.  Children and young people must be provided with the right balance and quantity of nutrition in order to support the brain’s role in mood regulation, behaviour, attention, reason, decision making and planning, memory and recall and without it problems can arise affecting behaviour, learning and general wellbeing.  The links with poor eating and nutrition and increased rates of depression and anxiety and other mental health, emotional and social difficulties are being made increasingly too.

As a psychologist I’m aware that food and eating are significant and loaded subjects.  One of my favourite theorists, Maslow,  places food at the foundation level of his ‘hierarchy of needs’ and along with other core needs like shelter and protection recognises that this supports and makes possible the actualisation of higher order needs such as cognition, learning and social and emotional development and function.  Again, it is obvious that children and schools are going to work better if you get this basic building block sorted.  Then there is the emotionally loaded nature of food and eating, which any psychodynamically-oriented psychologist/therapist so often translates food as love/self-worth/self-esteem etc.

Schools are well placed to support children’s healthy eating but how far should they go?  When I was at school many decades ago the system for providing free school lunches was a crude one in that many children suffered social stigmatisation. I remember dreading Monday mornings when children, including me, whose parents’ incomes qualified them for free lunches would have to line up outside the school office in order to collect their vouchers and handing these over to the dinner ladies before being served was a source of shame and feeling somehow inferior.  Over the years schools have developed more sensitive systems for ensuring children in need receive a midday meal without identifying them so obviously to their peers but it is still an issue of which staff must be aware if children with less than ideal family means are not to have their existing challenges exacerbated.

Cross-cultural studies often provide ideas and different perspectives in addressing social issues and in the programme to which I was contributing two journalists talked about how school children in their countries fared.  In France a relatively small proportion of children receive free school meals and parents pay a modest amount of about 3 .3 Euros for a three/four course meal and every school-aged child in France should be provided with a daily piece of fresh fruit.  The journalist added that there is no such thing as ‘kiddy’ food as children and adults eat the same high quality, well cooked and presented food.  In addition, schools are required to allow at least 45 minutes for children to consume their meal.   In Sweden their 1997 Education Act had resulted in legislation, policy and provision ensuring that all  7 to 16 year olds, irrespective of family income, received free meals so the dangers of social stigma were eliminated.  In addition they engaged in something loftily titled ‘the pedagogic lunch’, which in plain language means that teachers and pupils eat together as a matter of course and in this way children learn from their adult teachers and school staff models how to eat well.

Interestingly, in this short radio piece the topic of celebrity campaigners such as Jamie Oliver didn’t come up.  It’s not that I don’t think he and others don’t do great work in raising people’s awareness of the importance of healthy eating and good nutrition but I do think that the celebrity and media banner can, if you’ll forgive the pun, be hard to swallow for regular, non-celebrity people.  Most parents are aware, in my experience, of the importance of regular, consistent, healthy and balanced meals for their children so will welcome the support schools, Local Authorities and Government offer.

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