THE ongoing cost of living crisis means 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 indirectly through parental anxieties.

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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 of the Scottish Socialist Party and supported by Alex Neil of the SNP and Labour’s John McAllion. It was defeated, and it took a number of years – and an SNP majority government – for universal free school meals to actually start to happen.

In 2014, then first minister Alex Salmond, unveiled plans for free school meals for all children in primary 1-3 in Scotland, at the time covering 165,000 children and saving families £330 a year.

The scheme was extended to Primary Four children in 2021, in 2022 to Primary Fives, 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 ages, but we should be asking ourselves – is it enough?

As part of the Alba Party’s 5-Point Plan to tackle child and family poverty, all of Scotland’s schoolchildren, both primary and secondary, should be entitled to a nutritious free lunch at school every day. It also includes the roll-out of free breakfast clubs at every school.

The way things currently stand, those outwith the ages of universal meal provision are only entitled if they meet certain criteria, eg if a parent is on certain means-tested benefits or tax credits, or if the young person is 16-18 and on benefits in their own right.

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Opting for a means-tested approach as opposed to a universal one, presents challenges with the uptake of free school meals. 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 take-up.

Given the targeted nature from Primary Five upwards, some parents are not aware of the eligibility criteria. 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.

With universal free school meals (UFSM), there would be no question of entitlement criteria and no stigma around accepting them, meaning more children in Scotland would receive a lunchtime feed, something no child should go without.

The success of universal free school meals can be seen by looking at our Nordic 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.

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Free school meals have been seen not only to support young people’s wellbeing, but economic growth, too.

As well as providing universal free school meals, what other similarities can be seen between Sweden and Finland? Both are relatively small nations – Sweden with a population of 10.4 million and Finland 5.5m, like Scotland.

Both have lower poverty rates than Scotland and both are ranked in the top 10 of the happiest countries in the world, with Finland even reaching the top spot for the sixth year in a row.

The National: Stock image of children eating lunch. Picture Brent Council

The World Happiness Report considers six 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.

Scotland does not appear in its own right but as part of the UK it just makes the top 20 at number 19.

While 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 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 Nordic neighbours, have a happier and healthier population.

Christina Hendry is youth convener of the Alba Party