Sausage, mash and beans. Breaded fish. Macaroni cheese with garlic bread. Sponge pudding.
These are just some of the lunches served up at schools across the north of Scotland last week – and for some pupils, it will have been their only hot meal of the day.
Free school lunches are offered to P1-P4s across Scotland, and the scheme will be extended to P5s from January – saving families more than £400 a year.
And education chiefs believe it is not a minute too soon, as they revealed their worry at the number of young people arriving at school with an empty tummy.
Pupils at one north-east high school have even taken matters into their own hands and set up a community pantry, after a survey they carried out showed more than 60% of kids came to school without having eaten breakfast.
Sonya Warren, chairwoman of Moray Council’s children’s services committee, said the rise in use of food banks showed the increasing importance of kids receiving a good school lunch.
“The importance of school meals cannot be overstated,” she said.
“It ensures every child, regardless of their circumstances, has access to a healthy, nutritious meal every day. And by doing so, it helps them engage in class activities and learning.
“Good nutrition is vitally important for good health. By keeping our children fed it also helps keep them healthier and happier.”
Families urged to take up free school meals
School meals are seen as vital during kids’ formative years, and the ongoing expansion of free lunches has been welcomed by pupils, parents, education bosses and children’s charities.
The deal also allows councils to determine what approach they take in the school holidays depending on local needs, with options including the provision of direct payments, vouchers or food parcels.
In line with the expansion of the scheme, Aberdeenshire Council has seen the number of free school meals being taken up increase. Already this year, 4,434 meals have been given out – up from 4,332 in 2020/21.
The local authority works closely with Aberdeen North Foodbank, run by the Trussell Trust, and in the last nine months 1,772 of the 5,670 people they have fed were children.
Education convener Gillian Owen said: “Unfortunately, at the moment, some families are struggling to feed themselves so the extension of free school meals to P5s in January is very welcome indeed.
“I urge any family who is eligible for free school meals to apply. There is evidence that children and young people who are well nourished perform better at school.”
Aberdeen City Council’s education convener, M. Tauqeer Malik echoed Mrs Owen, and said the authority was working hard to eradicate food poverty, and had expanded the criteria to allow more children to benefit from free lunches.
He added: “No child, no family and no person should be hungry at any time, never mind Christmas, and we as a local authority will continue to work towards the eradication of food poverty by working with partner organisations.”
Rising costs heaping on the pressure
The Press and Journal, Evening Express and Original 106 have launched The Big Christmas Food Appeal, which aims to shine a light on food poverty in local communities and debunk some of the myths around foodbanks.
We’re teamed up with Cfine – who work across Grampian and the Highlands – and are asking readers to donate what they can to help feed families across the region.
Ms Warren said the rising costs of living were putting huge pressures on families.
“For some children their school meal may be the only hot meal of the day,” she added.
“Many people are facing huge increases in tax burdens as well as increased household and utility bills, putting huge pressure on parents and families, some of whom are turning to foodbanks to help make ends meet.
“Some parents in our communities are having to make the hard choice of heating the home or buying food to eat.
“It’s really hard knowing that, and the provision of free school meals will help to relieve some of this stress.”
Buckie High School pupils take action
Senior pupils at Buckie Community High School have even launched a community larder in the school, after a survey showed that more than 60% of kids came to school without breakfast.
Ms Warren said the Buckie example was a “stark” warning of the problem, and further emphasises the importance of hot, healthy meals at lunchtime.
Highland Council’s education chairman John Finlayson, who said the rise of foodbank use highlighted the importance of school lunches.
“School lunches help children learn,” he said. “Children need proper nutrition to learn and be motivated and alert at school.
“Of course those children living in poverty or from deprived backgrounds especially benefit. For some it’s their school lunch that’s the main meal of the day.
“Things are clearly more difficult now, with probably more pupils needing a nutritional meal on a daily basis.
“If more families are living in poverty, or having to choose between food and heat and clothing, it’s key that they get at least one proper meal a day.”