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Make school dinners ‘enjoyable rather than functional’: Nutritionists call for radical shake up

Farmer Pete Ritchie, of Nourish Scotland, says Tayside school lunches 'need to be better'.

School dinners in Tayside are ‘not good enough’ says a national nutrition expert who is calling for a radical shake up.

Meal time should be an extension of children’s learning and an enjoyable school experience, says Pete Ritchie – not ‘something functional’.

Pete, who runs Nourish Scotland, an organisation which campaigns for a sustainable food system, slammed meals served up to kids in schools in Tayside, saying they ‘need to be better’.

His comments come in reaction to images of one child’s actual meals revealed in 5 photos that convinced Dundee mum on benefits to refuse free meals.

The photo revelation angered many parents across the region, with some commenting that the meals looked ‘disgusting’.

Pete Ritchie as his farm shop at Whitmuir Farm, West Linton.

Supplier Tayside Contracts – which has served mass-produced, reheated frozen meals to Dundee and Angus schools since April, with Perth joining the programme last month – defended the meals.

A spokeswoman for the firm said all dinners served meet Scottish Government regulations for school meals but Pete says meeting regulations is ‘just not enough’.

He said: “The whole point of school is to widen children’s experiences and school dinners should be part of that.

“Get them to try something they never would at home, extend their learning from the classroom into the dining hall by looking at the origins of pizza or burritos and their cultures.

“We seem to think that if they provide nutritional content then they are doing great but that’s not the point.

“Nutritional content in stale bread is the same as nutritional content in fresh bread, but nutritional content doesn’t matter if no one eats it.”

Steak pie: photo of actual school dinner served up to one child in a Dundee primary school.

Currently all children in primary 1-4 qualify for free school meals, funded by the Scottish Government.

From next year that will be extended to all primary-aged children in Scotland.

Pete added: “We need to think of that as an opportunity to reboot and improve our school dinners.

“There’s no point in offering universal free school dinners if everyone chooses to bring packed lunches.

“If we can’t get people to eat food we offer for free then there’s something wrong.

“We shouldn’t have to defend school dinners. We should be trying to make it something enjoyable, rather than something functional.”

Dundee City Council has said it is working with the supplier and its pupil council to identify how to maximise uptake.

A spokeswoman for Tayside Contracts said: “Our long-standing commitment is to continuous improvement in our view it is always the right time to improve school meals even further.

“When developing menus, we consult with pupils and parents and have taster sessions.

“We also amend our menus throughout the year if/when a particular meal proves less poplar than we had anticipated.”

‘Room for improvement’

Annie Anderson, a professor of public health nutrition at the University of Dundee School of Medicine, also says more needs to be done.

While she says Tayside Contracts is doing ‘an amazing job’ and recognised the amount of work involved in creating suitable meals, she adds that there is ‘room for improvement’.

Professor Annie Anderson, University of Dundee.

She said: “We need to investigate how best to safety net children. It’s great that free school meals are on offer but if kids don’t eat the food then it’s awful.

“If the food they are served is not attractive, then that’s bad news, particularly for children who are vulnerable.”

Prof Anderson, who recently put together a study into how schools dealt with providing meals to children during the pandemic, says food presentation is a key part of encouraging children to make healthy choices.

She suggests transparency over meals, to aid children’s learning about food and manage expectation, and says regular, two-way communication between the suppling firm and parents should be introduced.

School dinners: BBQ chicken meal served to one child at a Dundee primary school.

Menus, recipes and images of school meals are available on Tayside Contracts website.

The firm’s spokeswoman said: “It is very good news for children who are vulnerable that Tayside Contracts provides them with high quality, appetising and nutritious meals not only during school term but also during school holidays and throughout the height of the pandemic.

“The wonderful feedback and appreciation of our meals from these kids is what makes our catering employees’ jobs worthwhile and more of a vocation than just a job – they are rightly very proud of the quality of meals they produce and serve.”

Ongoing process

She added: “Tayside Contracts continues to monitor the quality of school meals served and encourages catering staff to feedback timeously on any aspects of school meals that fall short of the quality it aims to achieve.

“As the new cook-freeze school meals service has been in place for a relatively short period, inevitably there have been issues which we have been proactive in resolving.

“It should be noted that positive feedback about the cook-freeze meals has been received from catering teams.”

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