School meals: Council pays just 71p per pupil

Concerns have been raised about the nutritional value of school meals. Picture: Stephen Mansfield
Concerns have been raised about the nutritional value of school meals. Picture: Stephen Mansfield
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CONCERNS have been raised over the nutritional value of school meals after figures revealed that councils in the Lothians are spending less than £1 per pupil to feed primary school children.

The main school meal provider in the Capital – Edinburgh Catering Services – spends just 71p on each primary school meal, which includes two courses and a drink. It is the lowest amount spent on food for primary school meals in the Lothians, which the city council partly attributed to its buying power and larger economies of scale.

Calls have been made for local authorities to fork out more cash for school meals, with award-winning chef Mark Greenaway questioning the “true freshness and standard” of the food.

It comes as fears have been raised about food standards in schools after a frozen burger tested positive for horse DNA at Cumbernauld High in North Lanarkshire.

The figures also revealed that Edinburgh Catering Services spends more than West, East and Midlothian councils on food for secondary school meals – £1.15 per two-course meal, including a drink. West Lothian Council spends 77p on each primary school meal and £1.02 per secondary school meal, while Midlothian’s figures are 93p and £1.05 respectively for a starter and a main course, or a main and a dessert, plus a drink.

Meanwhile, East Lothian Council said it spends 86p on every primary meal and £1.13 for each secondary school meal.

The cost is just what is paid for the ingredients used to prepare meals – with prices for the pupils themselves hitting £1.75 in Edinburgh primary schools and £2.25 in secondaries.

Steve Brown, from the Edinburgh School of Food and Wine, said the current crisis surrounding horsemeat in meals served to highlight that if prices are continually driven down, suppliers will begin cutting corners.

And Mr Greenaway, a critically acclaimed Edinburgh chef, said: “You have to question the true freshness and standard of this food – I can’t even buy a chicken breast for 77p, let alone provide two meals.

“Through freezing and defrosting, the natural values of food disappear. There is no disputing that fresh broccoli is better then frozen and if you buy cheap chicken, pork and beef, then it will be just that. All these latest problems relating to horse DNA and other substitutes within the food chain stem from squeezing more and more profit from food.”

Mother-of-three Tina Woolnough, Edinburgh parent representative on the National Parent Forum of Scotland, said “you get what you pay for” as far as food is concerned.

“I think there’s always room for improvement,” she said. “As a parent, I would like the quality and standards of the food and nutritional requirements to go higher. If the higher quality and the higher nutritional standards involved a bigger public subsidy from Edinburgh Council, then so be it. There’s nothing more important than investing in children’s core needs, which are food, exercise and fresh air.”

The Evening News previously told how council bosses have been forced to pull stocks of frozen beef from schools and care homes after horse DNA was discovered in a frozen burger from a leading supplier.

Beef burgers had been withdrawn from the menu in city schools and council-run canteens upon the instruction of procurement firm Scotland Excel, with the request then extended to include all beef products.

The order came after a frozen burger from the firm, which supplies food items to all Scottish councils, tested positive for horse DNA at Cumbernauld High in North Lanarkshire.

The Scottish Greens demanded action from SNP ministers on school supply chains following the incident.

Alison Johnstone, Green MSP for Lothian and food spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, said: “The complacency being shown by ministers is underlined by the fact that Scotland appears to spend just £1.18 per pupil per school meal.”

Green education spokeswoman Councillor Melanie Main said, as a mother, she was “genuinely shocked” that so little was being spent on school food locally. “As a council, particularly in the wake of the horsemeat scandal, we have a responsibility to provide healthy nutritious meals that help build good eating habits for life,” she said.

Mr Brown, head tutor at the Edinburgh School of Food and Wine, said: “Costs such as these are only possible if you are exceedingly thrifty and have an exceedingly good deal with your suppliers. Personally, as a chef, I find it hard to justify such figures, especially when you consider that with school meals you are supposed to be delivering nutrition.

“In the cooking world, there’s an old saying that you should never spend money on your staff food – serve them scraps and leftovers instead. I’ve always felt the reverse should be true; you should serve them the best because they are your most important asset. The same is very much true regarding school meals.

“We are supposed to be educating our children to eat healthily to tackle the country’s many health problems and then we spend such meagre money on feeding them. It makes no sense.”

Mr Brown added: “Look at France for instance, their schoolchildren are given the best and freshest food available and are taught to respect food and not waste it from a young age, and they do not have anything like the junk food or health problems we have.”

School meals in West Lothian are provided by the council’s in-house service, while all the school meals provided in Midlothian schools – primary and secondary – are prepared, cooked and served by Midlothian council catering staff at a cost of £3 million per year.

East Lothian Council provides school catering services in-house and said it did not buy ready meals or processed food, with everything cooked from scratch in its kitchens.

The city council’s school meals are provided by three suppliers – Edinburgh Catering Services, Amey and Mitie – with Edinburgh Catering Services providing the majority of the meals.

Paul Jeffrey, chair of Trinity Primary Parent Council, said his nine-year-old son Aidan, who is in primary 5, has a school dinner every second day. The 44-year-old, who lives in Trinity, said: “He alternates between packed lunches and school dinners, and prefers school dinner days. He seems to be quite happy with the choice and the school meals seem to be reasonably healthy – there’s always vegetables in the mix. If the council is able to produce school meals at that low cost, I think that probably has to be applauded. It seems reasonably good value for taxpayers’ money.

“I would not have a problem with paying more (for school dinners) for improvements, if they were required.”

But Tony Borthwick, chef-proprietor of the Plumed Horse in Leith, said the figures showing the amount spent on food for school meals were “surprisingly low”.

“I’m sure the councils do the very best they can although it doesn’t seem much to be spending on a child’s food,” he said.

“With kids, I personally am of the opinion that if you spend a bit more on quality ingredients, you’re going to do better by the child in the long run.

“I’m ‘quality ingredients’ driven, but to apply my rules to a school dining hall would be absolutely ludicrous and wholly inappropriate.”

‘Economies of scale cut costs’

THE CITY council said Edinburgh Catering Services spending the least on primary school meals in the Lothians was partly attributed to buying power and bigger economies of scale. The local authority pointed out that it serves half a million more meals to primary school children than the next biggest authority – West Lothian.

A spokeswoman said the council had “made great strides” in improving the quality and range of food that its schools serve, resulting in an increase in the uptake of school meals.

Meanwhile, West Lothian Council said it was confident that its meals were consistent with other local authorities in terms of nutrition.

A spokesman said: “We believe that we have a slightly reduced cost, when compared to other councils, as a result of a extremely robust and efficient production service. Every morning, each school provides our catering service with accurate numbers of pupils who are attending school that day.

“This ensures that the exact number of school meals required are delivered to each school, ensuring less food waste.”

Midlothian Council said it did not purchase any pre-made meals apart from chicken burgers, beef burgers and sausage rolls, and that all its main meals were freshly cooked using fresh ingredients prepared in the school kitchen.

Councillor Bob Constable, cabinet member for property and facilities, said: “Midlothian Council has one of the highest uptakes of school meals in Scotland and has an excellent track record in promoting healthy eating in schools.”

East Lothian Council said it did not buy ready meals or processed food, with everything cooked from scratch in its kitchens.

Your views

Scott Arthur, 43, Buckstone. His son Ben, 9, attends Buckstone Primary: “Yes, I would pay more. The current food scare lets you see that things have been driven by cost in public sector catering, so I think to get the balance right between cost and quality would be a good thing.”

Sean Watters, 41, Portobello, has two daughters, Etta, 11, and Rosa, 9, at Towerbank Primary School: “I’d be OK with paying more if it resulted in better meals. I’ve experienced lunch in primary schools and the food’s generally been fine.”

Christina Macmillan, 33, Slateford. Her five-year-old daughter Imogen is a pupil at Craiglockhart Primary: “£1.75 is a reasonable price to pay for a school meal. I haven’t actually had any issues with the quality of food that the school’s been providing. If I had an issue with the quality, I would pay whatever I needed to pay in order for the council to provide a healthy meal”

Kate Zawadzka, 25, from Leith, has a son, Hubert Malon, 6, who attends Royal Mile Primary: “Yes, I would pay more because I want him to be healthy.”

Jacky McKenzie, 36, Old Town. Her daughter Louise Turner, 8, is a pupil at Royal Mile Primary: “If it was better quality food, I would spend more – up to about £2.50.”

Structure of menu is ‘crucially important’

AS a specialist in school meals, Michael Clapham, senior lecturer in public health nutrition at Queen Margaret University, was an expert member of the committee that produced “Hungry for Success” – the Scottish Government’s school meals policy.

He investigated the effectiveness of the school meals policy on primary school children in East Lothian, and on secondary school pupils in Fife. He said: “How much you spend on food is important when sourcing ingredients. Particularly the costs associated with the Edinburgh primary schools at 71p seems very low.

“However, this is not the whole story. It’s how you structure the menu to achieve the nutritional standards for school meals which is crucially important.

“In addition, it’s not just about the provision of a healthy lunch. The question is, ‘are the children actually choosing to stay for school lunches, as opposed to bringing packed lunches or buying street lunches?’ The challenge is to make the lunches attractive enough so children don’t choose to leave school.

“Carina Norris, a former PhD student at QMU, conducted research while at the university in 2008 which compared secondary school lunches with packed lunches and street lunches. We found that the school lunch was nutritionally the best option. ”