Nicer than eating off the table

Children’s Food Trust Head of Schools Jeremy Boardman reflects on progress one month after the national launch of universal infant free school meals. 

It’s been called a golden age for school food. Cooking is back on the curriculum and new, easier-to-use school food standards come into force in January. But perhaps the most impressive step has been that around 16,000 schools have tackled a huge range of challenges in a short time to be able to provide universal infant free school meals this term.

So if you think August was quiet, then spare a thought for those thousands of schools which had this demanding new deadline looming. Since then, we’ve seen all kinds of stories in the press about how successful or otherwise the launch has been. Yes, there have been bumps in the road, but what we’re seeing is an overwhelming enthusiasm and determination from schools to make this work – and from what we’re hearing, demand for these meals is soaring.

We work in partnership with LACA (Lead Association for Catering in Education) to provide the national free Advice Service, set up especially to help schools, caterers and local authorities achieve this leap in demand. So we’ve had a privileged view of just how challenging it has been for some schools and of the hard work that continues behind the scenes to make sure all infants get these good meals.

At Haddenham St Mary’s School in Buckinghamshire, where they previously provided no school meals, we helped them be ready on day one to feed 100 infants.  The school is having a completely new kitchen enabling them to prepare fresh, healthy meals everyday for every child in reception, year 1 and year 2. And until that’s ready, a small, local food provider within the village is supplying home cooked meals using the produce that the children have grown from the garden.

Demand has doubled for infants’ school meals at St Peter and St Paul’s Catholic Primary School in Kent, with numbers jumping from around 30 to more than 60 every day. And they’re actually eating what’s on their plates. In fact, it’s the simplest ideas that can make the most difference. Switching from using flight trays to proper plates has made a huge difference, with one child reported to have said “it’s much nicer than eating off the table!”

Fairfield Primary School, Cumbria has gone from an all packed lunches situation to now providing 140 infants with free, tasty and nutritious lunches every day thanks to an external provider. In fact, it’s working so well, they’re extending the offer of a hot school meal to 380 pupils at the school.

But it’s not all glamorous work. Our advisors helped this school plan for the equipment needed, storage facilities, energy supply and internet cabling work, pointed the school in the direction of good suppliers and of course the extra funding.

Three West Berkshire schools used special PKL KitchenPods to meet demand. Westwood Farm Infant School, Cold Ash St Mark’s CE Primary School and Hungerford Primary School each had a different problem. But using the pods in different ways meant they were ready to provide lunch onsite at the start of the new term.

Other schools have brought in new hot food counters, new tables and started using online ordering to help ease the changes.

All this is great news for children. And the work continues. Our free Advice Service remains open throughout the school year ahead and, as term one of this new chapter approaches half way, we’re thrilled that we continue to see more brilliant examples of how schools are providing all infants with free nutritious meals.

The Advice Service is available at www.childrensfoodtrust.org.uk/schoolfoodplan  or Freephone 0800 680 0080.

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