Schoolchildren in Perth and Kinross will be served frozen meals at lunchtimes from as early as August, it has been confirmed.
Councillors approved the plans on Wednesday after a report outlined the significant challenges facing the local authority in delivering free school meals to all primary pupils, as will soon be required across Scotland.
Meals will be prepared in a production kitchen in Dundee before being flash-frozen and distributed to the region’s schools, where they will then be reheated.
Fresh ingredients such as vegetables will be made at the individual schools.
Sheena Devlin, executive director of education, told councillors that without the frozen meal arrangement the council will struggle to offer free school meals (FSM) to all primary children.
Scottish Government plans mean all P4 pupils will receive free lunches from August, P5s from January 2022, while all other primary pupils will be fed at no cost from August 2022.
But uptake of school meals is already above the national average in Perth and Kinross.
Based on the 2018 Healthy Living Survey, approximately 66.2% of all primary pupils were either taking a free school meal or paying for one.
Where free school meals are offered, almost 83% of pupils in P1-P3 take them.
This will mean the local authority needs to supply an estimated extra 500,000 meals each year to accommodate every child who wished to have one.
Ms Devlin told councillors the local authority would reach tipping point by January 2021 if significant changes were not implemented.
Concerns, however, were raised over redundancies and food quality – especially as food will be transported across the A9 from Dundee in many circumstances.
Councillors were told the dining experience, including the food quality and menus, will remain unaffected by the changes.
Labour Carse of Gowrie councillor Alasdair Bailey condemned the lack of public consultation to the proposals.
He said: “A great many people here in Perth and Kinross don’t want their kids fed meals produced remotely in a factory and reheated in their school.”
Some 3,000 parents, he said, opposed the proposals when they were first suggested in 2019.
He added: “The chefs in our schools become aware of individual children who are disadvantaged. They go out their way to ensure that they get that wee bit extra on their plate where possible.
“They have the time to care. By replacing these people you remove that care giving aspect.”
Our catering staff know their kids and need flexibility in the way that they deliver these meals to best suit the individual needs of pupils.”
Councillor John Rebbeck.
Councillor John Rebbeck, SNP education spokesman, said he was “deeply disturbed” by the decision to put frozen meals on the menu.
He added: “I believe the citizens of Perth and Kinross want local cooks producing nutritional, tasty meals for their kids using fresh and locally sourced ingredients.
“Our catering staff know their kids and need flexibility in the way that they deliver these meals to best suit the individual needs of pupils. We need to keep these skills in Perth and Kinross.
“Shipping weekly frozen meals from a production unit in Dundee will not satisfy any of these needs.”
Conservative council leader Murray Lyle, however, supported the proposals, stating: “This model delivers the Scottish Government’s commitment for all primary pupils to receive free school meals by summer 2022 generating the required additional capacity and will also realise savings.”