School meal regulations strain council budget

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School meal regulations are placing an additional strain on Argyll and Bute Council’s budget, the authority’s executive director has said.

A report revealed that new cost and demand pressures for ‘food and drink standards’ were handing the council an extra £65,000 cost every year.

That led council leader Robin Currie to seek clarity on whether this was due to school meals being given out while schools were closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

But executive director Kirsty Flanagan said that the increased cost had come from new regulations for school meals set out by the Scottish Government.

The discussion took place at a meeting of the council’s policy and resources committee as it debated the authority’s budget outlook up to 2025/26.

Ms Flanagan said: ‘There have been new regulations on what we are allowed to give children as part of a school meal, and that has brought about an increase in costs.

‘One example of this would be that we are only allowed to give pupils a specific type of yoghurt, and demand is pushing costs up. It has nothing to do with Covid costs.’

Ms Flanagan’s fellow executive director Douglas Hendry also stated that uptake of school meals had not been up to the same level as they had been before the Covid-19 pandemic.

He said: ‘Schools only opened at the back end of August, but it is looking as if the uptake of meals and income from them is down.

‘That is something we have an eye on and will bring back to members as and when we have a firmer handle of it.

‘It looks like there might be an issue as since the schools came back, pupils have not been taking up school meals as they had before Covid set in.’

Councillor Alastair Redman responded: ‘You can certainly see that in some schools where they have introduced a more meagre meal for growing pupils who are instead going down the road for food from a shop.

‘It does seem to be a recurring theme that our budgets shrink but costs go up, and central government is not helping with that.’

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: ‘Following a public consultation and engagement with our local authority partners we will be introducing amended regulations for the provision of school food and drink in April 2021.

‘The amended regulations will make school food even healthier by reducing the amount of sugar served, increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables that are available and place a maximum on the amount of red and red processed meat that can be served in a school week.

‘The 2020/21 local government finance settlement announced in March means that Argyll and Bute Council was due to receive £219.7 million to fund local services.

‘Taken together with the council’s decision to increase council tax by 4.5 per cent, the council had an initial extra £12.5 million to support vital day-to-day services in 2020/21 which was the equivalent of an additional 6.3 per cent on 2019/20.

‘To date, the council have been allocated an additional £8.4 million to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, plus £37 million to support local businesses.

‘In addition, Argyll and Bute Council will receive its fair share of a further £178 million which is currently undistributed but will be allocated following agreement with COSLA on how it is to be distributed.

‘Scotland’s councils, including Argyll and Bute Council, have also been granted additional financial flexibilities to address the pressures caused by Covid-19 which could be worth around £600 million over the next two years.’