by Roz Paterson
The Scottish Socialist Party’s Free School Meals (FSM) campaign began in 2001, just two years into the SSP’s lifetime.
The plan was, and is, simple – give every state school child in Scotland a free, nutritious school lunch. That way, everyone has the opportunity to eat well every single day they attend school, taking a considerable burden off the shoulders of struggling families, removing the stigma attached to the current system, where poor kids can be identified and singled out, and raising the nutritional standards of our upcoming generation. How could it fail?
In fact, although the FSM bill has been rejected by the Scottish Parliament twice – the second time, it didn’t even get debated – the campaign has far from failed. Scottish schoolchildren are reaping the benefits of our campaigning work, and the best is yet to come. As mentioned, we were in our infancy in 2001, but even then, we secured the backing of the Child Poverty Action Group, the Poverty Alliance, the STUC’s Women’s Committee and UNISON for our bill.
By the time it reached committee stage in the Parliament, it was clear we had won the argument when the British Medical Association gave us their explicit backing. Children’s groups Children 1st and NCH fell in, as did anti-poverty groups Westgap and the Dundee Anti-Poverty Forum.
The debate itself threw into relief the attitude of the Labour Party, who claimed that the universality clause – which would mean well-off children would also benefit – was the problem. They still say that.
But the real problem was that they didn’t want the SSP to get another popular bill passed, not after the Warrant Sales bill went through.
Furthermore, the former party of the working class is wedded to the free market, and to treating everyone, including young children, as commercial customers. Never mind that they are fed junk and that their health is on a nosedive towards obesity and diabetes – the market reigns, and multinational caterers must be allowed into this sector to make profit out of people.
One key aspect of the bill was the issue of stigma. Children entitled to free school meals were branded. Sometimes they had to join different queues, or use different coloured tickets. In one Glasgow school, they had to wait behind the paying children. No wonder parents would do anything to spare their kids this humiliation, including forking out money they just didn’t have and which invariably went to the junk food pushers who circle our schools like vultures.
The evidence presented to support our bill was powerful stuff, and politicians were shocked by it. Though they voted down the bill, in June 2002, measures were put in place to tackle the stigma issue, such as the introduction of smart-cards, which make it harder to tell who is in receipt of a free meal. But stigma remains a problem, and only universal free provision can solve it.
The other positive effect of the FSM campaign was the Hungry For Success campaign, launched in November 2002 by the Scottish Executive in a bid to address the issues we had raised.
Hungry For Success was the first time an attempt had been made to get healthier food into schools and within a year, over £100million was poured into making this happen. Though food improved, uptake dropped. If meals were free, parents wouldn’t have to give their children money for lunch, which would mean they couldn’t turn down the good food and buy chips instead. Everyone seemed to understand that, other than the Labour/LibDem coalition.
Hungry For Success made other mistakes. Over £4million was squandered on a witless Healthy Eating Helpline that only a dismal percentage of people phoned, proving that our poor diet is caused primarily by poverty and lack of access to good food, rather than a failure to understand that salads and fresh fish are better for you than two Twixes and a can of shandy.
Within a year of the first bill’s debate, the FSM campaign had re-formed, and was stronger than ever. By then, we had our six MSPs elected in 2003, and Rosie Kane took up the bill, later to be replaced by Frances Curran as Rosie had to take some time off. By this time, the evidence against the status quo was mounting.
The Soil Association’s ‘Muck Off The Truck’ report found school meals to be processed rubbish with almost no nutritional value at all. The cost of the food in a typical school dinner was revealed to be just 35 pence; less than that spent on prisoners’ food, or that given to army dogs.
Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver turned our stomachs with horror stories of Turkey Twizzlers.
This was all borne of the Thatcher government’s reckless deregulation of school meals, the abandoning of nutritional standards that had served us well since the Second World War, and the resultant de-skilling of school cooks as school kitchens became nothing more than places where hired hands re-heated food dispatched from factories several hundred miles away.
But it wasn’t just stomach-turning – it was heart-breaking. Professor Mike Lean, Professor of Human Nutrition at Glasgow University, warned us that the generation going through school now would be the first to be buried by its parents. Bad food would kill our children, through heart disease, cancers, diabetes.
We had become a society alienated from its food sources. No wonder children didn’t know what a leek was, or thought potatoes came from cows. The only food source they saw was the packet it came in.
The FSM campaign was about much more than just school – it offered a snapshot of contemporary society, and to what extent playing by market rules had degraded our lives, and our health.
Children no longer ate with their parents, the whole food culture had collapsed, and only the Sodexhos were benefiting.
The FSM campaign began to grow. Organisations like One Plus and the Scottish Youth Parliament came on board. A headteacher from Finland attended one of our early launches. Interviewed by a radio journalist, she was asked, but why do you make school dinners free? She looked taken aback, clearly surprised that anyone could ask such a question. Why wouldn’t you, she replied, if you want the kids to eat them?
The idea that here in Scotland, the government treats children as ‘consumers’ who must have ‘choice’ seemed nonsensical to her. Which is exactly what it is. We are supposed to look after our children, and teach them how to be healthy adults. We fail in this when we treat them like customers in a shop, leaving all the decisions to them.
The uptake amongst Finnish schoolchildren for the no choice school dinners – it’s soup, main course, fruit and yoghurt or nothing – is over 90 per cent.
Since 2003, the FSM campaign group has met every month, in different locations across Scotland, to progress the campaign.
And on the streets, SSP members have been tireless. Branch members describe people queuing up to sign the FSM petition, and some joining the party on the strength of our policy. It was this hard work that kept the bill in the public eye. Newspapers, so beholden to the mainstream parties, barely gave it a mention.
When the SSP sent out the bill’s consultation, written by Bill Scott, it attracted over 500 responses, 96 per cent of them positive.
We had won the argument in society at large. Now it was a question of political will. If a Labour government could commit to spending over £1.5billion-a-year on Trident, surely it could find £100million for decent, free school meals?
We are now in a crisis, in terms of health, as deep as that following the Second World War, when nutritional standards were introduced for school meals. Children then were suffering the ill-effects of malnutrition.
Today, though the incidence of obesity is rising, they are again. We have children whose weight is escalating, but whose bodies are starved of the nutrients they need to develop properly. Our school canteens are full of calorie-laden food devoid of vitamins and minerals.
As in the 1940s, we need a radical, public health intervention to save this upcoming generation from a death sentence. Commentators and politicians may claim, blithely and stupidly, that kids today have never had it so good. They are blatantly wrong.
In Scotland, one quarter of kids come to school having eaten nothing. How can they concentrate and learn under these conditions?
And a third of all Scottish schoolchildren go home to nothing by way of a proper cooked meal. Maybe they get a sandwich, or money for the chip shop. How can they thrive like this? Why is the government doing nothing to help them?
The second FSM bill never made it to the debating chamber, the parliament deeming that it was out of time. Again, the campaign had been torpedoed in the name of political expediency.
But important concessions have been won. The Labour Party have promised to extend free school meal provision to a further 90,000 children. It’s not good enough, and still relies on the humiliating process of means-testing. But it’s better than it was and will benefit many.
And we now have water coolers to provide free water to pupils in most schools, where once they had to buy the bottled variety, at enormous expense – 63 pence, to be precise, out of the £1.10 allotted to free school meals candidates.
And Glasgow City Council have introduced free breakfasts for primary school children across the region.
We have every reason to be proud of what we have achieved, of how we have driven the debate and, in so doing, brought positive changes into people’s lives.
But free, nutritious school meals remain an essential part of the society-wide changes we must make to ensure that our children don’t die of horrendous, man-made diseases before they have even had the chance to be adults.
Teachers, doctors, nutritionists and anti-poverty groups are on our side. We’ll get there, just you wait and see.
See also: the original Free School Meals consultation document – by Frances Curran MSP.