THE SCOTTISH Greens claim that over £34,000 is owed in school meal debt in Shetland – and that the money should be written off.
The Greens are also calling for school meals to be free to all pupils after an investigation revealed that children and families in Scotland have accrued more than £1 million of school meals debt, including £34,239 in “Shetland Council”.
Highlands and Islands MSP John Finnie called for the debt to be scrapped and for Scotland to move to a Finnish-style system where children are provided with free meals.
Finnie said: “Children in Shetland and across the country are going hungry. We know that means-tested free school means miss out far too many families who need them.
“If it is serious about closing the attainment gap, the Scottish Government should follow the example of Finland by providing all pupils with access to a free, nutritious breakfast and lunch, including during school holidays.
“The first step towards that would be writing off this frankly astonishing and growing debt.”
Shetland Islands Council’s education and families committee chairman George Smith said that that he was in favour of free school meals for all schoolchildren, and nursery age bairns as well, if the Scottish Government would fund such a scheme.
Smith said that he was unaware of council arrangements for school meal debt or if the figures claimed by the Greens were accurate.
Shetland, he said, had among the lowest uptakes of free school meals across Scotland, and that free school meal rates were used by the Scottish Government as a measure linked to some areas of funding.
He urged all families who thought their children should be eligible for free school meals to claim them. With the electronic payments system, there was no stigma attached to claiming school meals and it was not even possible to tell who was paying for meals and who was getting theirs free.
Smith said: “I would emphasise that families should be taking up free school meals where they are entitled – there should be no stigma.
“If they are struggling to pay for meals, they should get in touch with the Citizens Advice Bureau and make sure they are claiming all the benefits they can.”
Smith added there were a number of objectives and initiatives being rolled out regarding meals. Good nutrition was beneficial for learning and for some children school dinner might be their only guaranteed hot meal of the day.
One initiative in its early stages was to make school meals available during holiday periods so that proper nourishment was not limited to term time.
There was a “big push” towards increasing the quality of school meals, with two main course alternatives on the menu, vegetarian options and puddings being replaced by fruit and veg.
There is also a “packed lunch alternative” offering a healthy baked potato and soup.
The council was also looking at procuring more food locally.
“All these things go together to make sure that we give pupils better meals and the best learning environment that we can,” said Smith.
Shetland Foodbank coordinator David Grieve said that it was difficult to say exactly what impact school meal debt had on foodbank use.
He added: “If funding can be found to do it [free school meals], it would be to the benefit of the families we support.”
At Lerwick Community Council on Monday it was noted that at the Anderson High School free school meals are paid by card but that bought meals are still paid for by cash.