Cheap school dinners and hospital food are making us sick – and fat
Keep fit and healthy like Petra McMillan, owner of the Dumbuck House Hotel, who climbs mountains and does bicycle marathons to raise money for the Marie Curie Nurses charity.
By Bill Heaney
We are what we eat. And that’s far too much in most cases.
I sat and watched the passing parade of punters in Braehead shopping centre the other day.
And the first thing that struck me was just how fat and unhealthy looking most people were.
Bursting out of their denims, buttons straining to contain their boobs and backsides.
And a belly or ten that would in many cases qualify its owners for a walk on part in Dumbo the Elephant.
It was a surprise then to come home and discover there had been a debate in the Scottish Parliament about obesity, a subject that has been virtually ignored for far too long at Holyrood.
An old pal used to say that we Scots were a nation of comic singers, big eaters and simultaneous dancers. Look around you. Was he right?
Brian Whittle, 54, pictured left, is a Scottish politician and former athlete who won gold medal in the 4 x 400 metres relay at both the 1986 European Athletics Championships and 1994 European Athletics Championships.
He also competed at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, and won the political race to Holyrood at the last Scottish Parliamentary election for the Scottish Conservatives. He agrees with the opening sentence in the briefing that the Scottish food coalition submitted to parliament for the debate which he promoted there – “Our food environment promotes and normalises unhealthy diets.”
While Scottish farmers were doing things right by producing the highest-quality food – “However, when it comes to public food procurement, we find that a high proportion of the food in our schools and hospitals—much of which could be sourced locally—is cheaper imports.
“However, only 16 per cent of Scotland Excel procurement contract food is sourced from food that is grown by Scottish farmers.”
Labour MSP Monica Lennon, below right, immediately homed in on food served in our hospitals and schools – “What is his view on processed meats that contain nitrites being served in hospitals and schools? Should there be a shift to nitro-free meats in our schools and hospitals?”
But Whittle said: “If we followed the path of procuring food that is sourced as locally to the school as possible, that problem would be solved in one fell swoop.”
He followed that up saying the Government could not be satisfied with the lack of support for Scottish food producers, which contrasts with his own farming constituency’s gold standard, where nearly 75 per cent of ingredients for school meals are sourced locally. There was no excuse.
He then revealed some remarkable statistics about school dinners – “Education Scotland has reported that, following 109 nutritional inspections of secondary schools, it was found that some 70 per cent of school meals failed to meet nutritional standards.
“I am pretty sure that, if it were left to pupils to deliver the learning that they receive, the system that they would come up with would not look much like the current one.
“There is a higher prevalence of fast food, alcohol and tobacco outlets in more deprived areas.
“When a person drives past any fast food outlet near a school at lunch time, are the huge queues of school pupils that they see the result of a lack of money or austerity?
“Is the fact that so many pupils who are eligible for free school meals still choose to join the fast food queues an austerity issue?”
Green Party MSP Alison Johnstone said: “Young people want to spend time with other young people. If their friends are going out for lunch, they might wish to join them.
“Surely the best thing for us to do is to ensure that everyone has enough income so that they are not stigmatised. Some young people feel stigmatised because it is known that they receive free school meals. That is part of the issue.”
But Brian Whittle responded: “I will flip that point on its head. Most people do not know who gets free school meals, because children have a card to get that school meal. We should encourage more schoolchildren to stay in school and get a healthy meal, so that they do not need to go elsewhere.
“An obvious first step is to understand what drives that behavioural pattern. Key to that will be ensuring that the food on the plates in schools is of the highest quality and, preferably, is sourced from local farmers.
“Allowing pupil input into menu choices, as part of that education, will enable buy-in, so more pupils will stay in school. We need to stop food vans from camping outside schools and to be more selective about which outlets are granted licences near schools.
“How else will pupils be dissuaded from rejecting school meals in favour of fast food? It is not rocket science; we just need the courage and will to act.
“We all know that, along with physical activity and inclusivity, a healthy diet is one of the cornerstones of health and wellbeing. Policies on many of the issues that we debate in the chamber—such as mental health, eating disorders, preventable cancers, diabetes, educational attainment, the preventative agenda for health, musculoskeletal conditions and obesity—should have nutrition as a key component. I have yet to hear a minister mention nutrition as being part of the solution in any of the plethora of ministerial statements that we have been bombarded with recently.
For example, the research is clear about the impact of a basic healthy diet on mental health. The Mental Health Foundation’s report “Food for thought: Mental health and nutrition briefing” says: ‘One of the most obvious yet under recognised factors in the development of mental health is nutrition … There is a growing body of evidence indicating that nutrition may play an important role in the prevention, development and management of diagnosed mental health problems including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder … and dementia.’
“Getting it right from day 1 has to be the goal. It is much easier to influence people at an early age than to try to change behaviours later in life. Many health and education pathways are already set by the time children reach school age, so the importance of early good practice cannot be overstated. Education is a crucial background, not just for tackling the obvious attainment goals but for securing better health outcomes.
“Sir Harry Burns [the now retired Chief Medical Officer for Scotland] stated: “the way in which we nurture children, the way in which we bring children into the world, and the way in which we look after them in the first years of life is absolutely critical to the creation of physical, mental and social health.”
“It is little use understanding what programmes need to be delivered if there is no delivery mechanism. It will be our healthcare professionals, our teachers and those in the third sector to whom we will turn, and the evidence tells us that, if they are given adequate support, we can provide the space for creativity and innovation.”
He told parliament: “The cabinet secretaries for health, education and the rural economy should have been sitting on the Government benches for this debate. The fact that they are not speaking in the debate highlights the Scottish Government’s continuing lack of understanding of the complexities of the issue. Until the Government is prepared to deliver a whole-systems, cross-portfolio approach, it will continue to make little progress in this policy area.
“We are talking about a significant system change, the benefits of which will take time to realise. Therefore, if the current Scottish Government implements that change, it will not get the credit; subsequent Administrations will take the plaudits. However, as I said in my first speech in Parliament, we can achieve anything as long as we do not mind who gets the credit.”
He added: “More than at any other time, the Parliament is capable of meaningfully affecting Scotland’s long-term rising health and education crises. Nutrition is a key pillar of good health and education, which helps to tackle the much-discussed health inequalities and problems with attainment. The solutions lie entirely within the competence of this Parliament.
“It is time that the Scottish Government grasped the nettle, stopped the endless pontificating and tinkering around the edges, and delivered effective change.”
The Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing, Joe Fitzpatrick, right, said he did not like the tone of of Mr Whittle’s contribution – “I was genuinely disappointed by the tone of Brian’s Whittle contribution, because it did not reflect how we have debated this important matter in the past. I hope that we can get back to working together across the chamber on this very important issue.
“I genuinely think that we all share my ambition for ‘“a Scotland where we eat well, have a healthy weight, and are physically active’.”
He added: “The scale of the problem that we face is significant: 26 per cent of children in Scotland are at risk of being overweight or obese, half of whom are specifically at risk of obesity. A baby who is born to an obese mum is more likely to become obese in childhood and remain so as an adult. Those are the stark facts.
“Making good decisions is tough when we are constantly bombarded with messages that encourage us to impulse buy and over-consume junk food.
“I know that the areas around schools are of great concern to members across the chamber.
“Children in Scotland, no matter where they live, learn and play, should eat well and have a healthy weight. Schools, nurseries and out-of-school care all play an important part. By August 2020, we will increase the number of funded early learning and childcare hours and ensure that children receive healthy meals and snacks, as well as take part in active play and learning.
“We have consulted on important changes to our school food regulations, informed by the latest evidence, and will publish the results later this month. We will soon consult on our plans for out-of-school care, ensuring alignment with the high standards of our school food.
“I want to acknowledge the importance of education. We want young people to leave school equipped to make good choices about their health and the food that they consume.
“The curriculum for excellence provides opportunities for learning about food and nutrition, but our plan recognises that parents and children have contact with many other professionals. They, too, have a responsibility for promoting healthy eating, especially in the early years.
“The government aims to halve childhood obesity rates by 2030, including through action to transform the food environment to support healthier choices and reduce the excessive consumption of food and drink high in fat, sugar or salt, and notes the valuable contribution that schools make to educate children and young people about all of these vital issues.”
More than 257,000 people in Scotland are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and a further 500,000 are at risk of developing it. Diabetes includes a risk of blindness and amputation.
The NHS spends almost £1 billion on tackling diabetes, and 80 per cent of that goes on managing avoidable complications.
David Stewart MSP, left, said: “When faced with the complexity of our obesity and diabetes problems, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. Some of us may longingly hark back to the good old days, when food was less processed and children played outside rather than sitting playing ‘Football Manager’, but nostalgia is not a solution.
“The key is an approach that does not just restrict unhealthy foods, which is negative, but that makes a balanced diet a much more practical option.
“We all know that the growth of out-of-home eating means that any strategy needs to have a consistently strong approach to the labelling and marketing of foods by restaurants and takeaways.”
He added: “It is fine to promote a balanced lifestyle, but what if a person on the minimum wage with a zero-hours contract needs to grab a fast-food dinner during a split shift?
“Being serious about improving the health expectations of all our citizens means being more determined to eradicate poverty in Scottish communities. As my party and the Scottish Co-operative Party have argued, we need a right to food in a good food nation bill.
“That is why Labour believes that tackling wealth inequalities is at the heart of the health agenda and, indeed, all policy agendas. All that we need is to have ‘the will to do’ and ‘the soul to dare’.”
Meanwhile, Jackie Baillie has once again called on the Scottish Government to implement Scottish Labour’s policy of topping up Child Benefit by £5 per week in a bid to lift families out of poverty.
Analysis from the Resolution Foundation found that the real-terms value of Child Benefit has fallen by £210 per year since 2009-10 and is worth no more today than it was in 1999.
One in four children in West Dunbartonshire, and one in five children in Argyll and Bute are currently living in poverty. Scottish Labour’s plan to top up child benefit would deliver an extra £260 per child per year to half a million families in Scotland.
In 2016, the Scottish Parliament was given new powers over social security, and these included being able to change the way some benefits were delivered in Scotland.
The MSP, pictured right, said: “The analysis from the Resolution Foundation reveals the impact that Tory austerity is having on living standards, with Child Benefit worth less today than it was in 2010.
“The Scottish Parliament has been given the power to not only reverse that cut, but to put more money back into the pockets of families across the country. But instead of using those powers, the Scottish Government has handed back control to the U.K. government for at least 10 years. What a wasted opportunity which leaves thousands of children in West Dunbartonshire and Argyll and Bute living in poverty.
“It is clear that Scottish Labour’s policy on Child Benefit could have a life-changing impact for families across the country. I am urging the Scottish Government to implement this policy and help lift families out of poverty.”