Do we still need school dinners?

Writer Susan Elkin posed this question today in a blog for the Independent. No points for guessing what our answer is!

And some of you seem to agree – there are already some great posts in the comments section on why school dinners are still essential. But here are a few other big points we thought were still missing:

  • First: evidence shows that the vast majority of packed lunches don’t get anywhere close to the nutritional standards expected of school meals. In our national research on packed lunches, around a fifth of the children who brought sandwiches had a filling like jam or chocolate spread, and more than half had a sugary drink like cola. Pupils bringing packed lunches typically ate more foods like meat pies and pasties, drinks high in sugar, and snacks high in fat and salt, like crisps – meaning their intake of sugar, fat, saturated fat and salt at lunchtime was higher. Kids having school meals were eating more portions of fruit and veg at lunchtime, far less confectionary, and drinking more water.

  • Second: when kids eat better, they do better. Studies clearly show that children are more able to focus and concentrate in lessons after a decent lunch. Large pilot schemes which offered every primary school child a free lunch found they made up to 8 weeks more progress in class than their peers in other areas. So when it comes to fuelling up children to reach their full potential, school meals have a huge role to play.

  • Third: what about the learning power of sharing a meal during the school day? If we want our children to grow up with an understanding of what it means to eat well, with the confidence to try new dishes and flavours, eating with their friends is fundamental. For younger children, particularly, we hear so often about the positive peer effect of eating what their friends eat – often parents tell us how their child has tried a dish at school that they’ve always refused in the past. Best of all, they then start asking for it at home, too.

  • You say that “parents resent having to pay for something their children don’t really like”. But the number of families opting for school meals – both paid and free – has been rising for the last four years running. It will take time – as Jamie famously predicted – to turn around those decades and decades of decline. But there’s been incredible progress in just a few years. And let’s not forget that this is about more than just food: it’s about the whole experience of school lunch for children. If we want all children to opt for the school dining room, we need to get the rest of the package right too: a pleasant dining space, enough time to sit down and eat, decent kitchen facilities for every school, the right support and training for kitchen teams….

  • Do we need to keep up the efforts to make sure children who would qualify for free school meals are actually getting them? Absolutely. It’s a continuing concern that some families don’t register at all (sometimes because they don’t want to, but often because they don’t know they need to, or don’t know how); and that some families register but choose not to take up their free lunches. Is the registration process for free school meals – which varies enormously from area to area – crying out to be simplified, to make sure more of the children who qualify actually get their meal? Definitely: the move to Universal Credit should be the logical time to address this. Should every child living in poverty get a free lunch at school? Unequivocally – for every single one of the reasons above.

Claire’s our Media Manager. Email Claire

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