Happier, healthier children in an independent Scotland

With the ongoing cost of living crisis people are facing unprecedented pressures on finances. This is leading to increased poverty levels and having a detrimental effect on mental health. In the UK, the number of children in food poverty has nearly doubled and in colder months families are being forced to choose between heating and eating. In a country of Scotland’s size and with our wealth in energy resources, this should not be happening.

Food poverty is a serious concern and is responsible for a number of poor health outcomes in children and families. Food poverty leads to lower educational attainment, perpetuating the poverty cycle down generations. Not having access to nutritious food is a risk to brain development at key biological and psychological stages, such as early childhood and adolescence. Household stress is also increased, impacting children and young people’s mental health both directly and in-directly through parental anxieties.

One intervention to reduce food poverty is universal free school meals. This is not a novel concept, having been adopted by numerous countries around the world and in Scotland for some age groups.

In 2002 the School Meals (Scotland) bill proposing free school meals be provided universally was introduced by Tommy Sheridan, SSP and supported by Alex Neil, SNP and John McAllion, Labour. This was defeated and it took a number of years, and an SNP majority government, until universal free school meals would actually start to happen.

In 2014, First Minister Alex Salmond, unveiled plans for all primary 1-3 in Scotland, at the time covering 165,000 children and saving families £330 a year.

In 2021 the scheme was extended to Primary 4 children and in 2022 to Primary 5 children, with plans to extend to all primary aged children being delayed. Scotland has come some way in the last 10 years in terms of universal free school meals for some primary ages, however the question that we should be asking ourselves - is it enough?

As part of ALBA Party’s 5 Point Plan to tackle child and family poverty, all Scotland’s school children, both primary and secondary, should be entitled to a nutritious free lunch at school every day. Also including the roll out of free breakfast clubs at every school.

The way things currently stand, those out-with the ages of universal meal provision, are only entitled if they meet certain criteria e.g. if a parent is on certain means benefits or tax credits, or if the young person is 16-18 and on benefits in their own right. Opting for a means tested approach as opposed to a universal one, presents challenges in the uptake of free school meals and, according to a Scottish Government report, in 2022 only 68% of pupils who were registered for a free meal took one.

There are several factors thought to influence those who are entitled to free school meals taking them. Given the targeted nature from Primary 5 upwards, some parents are not aware of the eligibility criteria and therefore not aware their children are entitled. It has also been noted that parents were unclear on how it would affect other family benefits, with some fearing it would disqualify them from other entitlements.

Parents have also reported a stigma in accepting free school meals and feeling ashamed to reach out for support. Stigma concerns have also been raised by young people with a survey conducted by the Scottish Youth Parliament, as part of the Right to Food report, finding that almost half of those who took part consider there to be a stigma around needing support to access food. If free school meals were universally available there would be no question of entitlement criteria and no stigma around accepting them, meaning more children in Scotland would receive a lunch time feed. Something that no child should go without.

The success of universal free school meals can be seen when looking across to our Scandinavian neighbours. In Sweden, a study by Lund University found that after decades of UFSM, various benefits have been identified in health and economics: children would grow taller, live longer, healthier lives and would have better, more highly paid careers.

In Finland, a country many consider as having one of the best educational models in the world, free school meals are seen as important as children who are hungry are less likely to concentrate and more likely to drop out of school. Free school meals have not only been seen to support young people’s well-being, they also have been found to support economic growth.

As well as providing universal free school meals, what other similarities can be seen between Sweden and Finland? Both are relatively small nations (Sweden 10.4 million, Finland 5.5 million), a similar population size to that of Scotland (5.5million). Both countries have lower poverty rates than Scotland. And both Sweden and Finland are ranked in the top 10 of the happiest countries in the world, with Finland even reaching the top spot for the 6th year in a row.

The World Happiness Report considers a number of factors when ranking the happiest countries in the world. It considers 6 categories: GDP per capita; social support; healthy life expectancy; freedom to make own life choices; generosity of the general population; and the absence of corruption.

So why is it that Finland hit the top spot as number one happiest country in the world and Scotland is nowhere to be seen in the rankings? Scotland does not appear in the happiness scales in its own right, appearing as part of the UK (who just make the top 20, ranking in at number 19).

Whilst no country is without its challenges, Finland has one key thing that Scotland does not: the ability to decide its own polices and, therefore, its own future.
Universal free school meals should be an immediate priority for Scotland in tackling child poverty and providing our young people with equal opportunities to thrive.

These free school meals should be nutritious, good quality and locally produced, supporting both our children’s development and the local economy.

However, to fully support all in society we must be an independent nation. Only with independence will we have full control of Scotland’s future and, like our Scandinavian neighbours, have a happier and healthier population.

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