Are universal free school meals the way to make sure all children who most need them, get them?

Jo Nicholas (1)Jo Nicholas, our Head of Evaluation, blogs for Society Central:

“…..there are two gaps which need addressing here: getting families to register for free school meals in the first place, then getting them to take up the meals once they have.

“Does it actually matter? Well, 3.6 million children are living in poverty in the UK today: that’s 27 per cent of children, or more than one in four. In some areas, 50 to 70 per cent of children are growing up in poverty. These children can’t afford to miss out on a nutritious meal, in every sense of the phrase: a better lunch at school improves children’s focus and performance in class. It’s a crucial factor: currently, by the age of 16, children eligible for free school meals achieve 1.7 SAT grades less than their wealthier peers. School lunch can also be the only proper meal of the day for a child living in poverty, and school meals still outdo the vast majority of packed lunches when it comes to nutrition both in primary and secondary schools.”

Read Jo’s full post.


A watershed moment for school food?

Rob Rees, Children's Food Trust ChairmanBeing completely honest, there are a lot of people who’ve asked me over the last year whether the government’s school food review would come up with anything ‘new’. Was there a silver bullet that no one had ever thought of? Were there great ideas which hadn’t been tried? Was a ‘eureka!’ moment likely?

And while many of the themes and ideas will be familiar to everyone involved with school food, what is new is that this is a shot in the arm for the message that people like us champion every single day:  great food in schools is important. Eight years on from Jamie’s School Dinners, maybe our country was in need of a prod to remember what great school food can do for children, and what has to be done to help schools produce it.

Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, with the support of an expert panel, have done a great job of underlining the things that work, where the effort needs to be focused – and by whom. Look back to Jamie’s original 2005 Feed Me Better manifesto and you’ll find some similar themes: the need to keep being creative with food to get more kids eating school food; the need to better train and support staff; the need for a long-term national commitment and funding.  Read the 2005 School Meals Review Panel report and appendices – commissioned by the then government to set out the actions needed after Jamie’s campaign – and you’ll find recommendations around increasing take up, teaching children practical cooking, improving the quality of food, the need for good sources of information on how to do school food well and supporting staff with training and funding. Look at the things that organisations like the Children’s Food Campaign, Chefs Adopt a School, Food for Life Partnership, LACA, School Food Matters, the Children’s Food Trust and many others have been working on since then and you’ll be able to match many points. But perhaps others who are more removed from the day-to-day realities of school meals had assumed that just because we know what works, the job was done. Far from it. That’s why this review was important.

We always knew that government, caterers and schools would have to be in this for the long-haul. Whole-scale change takes time. Will we still be talking about Henry and John’s recommendations in another eight years?  I sincerely hope so. I hope that in eight years time, we’ll be talking about how this latest national school food plan galvanised government – and politicians of all parties – to keep up a sustained commitment to good food in our schools. I hope we’ll be talking about how more head teachers across the country were inspired to take a lead on food in their school – not settling for something that’s less than their pupils deserve because it feels too hard a problem to tackle: there is lots of help out here for you. I hope that strong support nationally and locally – together with the funding announced today to help – will have meant that the great lunchtime experience already being delivered to many children becomes a great experience delivered to them all.

To all the nay-sayers who will question the value of this review: anything which reminds us all of why we need to get food right in our schools is ok by me. Now let’s all get on with the job.

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


Lunchtime changes giving you the chills?

It’s Halloween week – the perfect time to blog about some of the scary stories we’ve been emailed by parents in the last half term.

Three parents emailed us to say they were confused (and bemused) by the way their schools seemed to have started policies banning packed lunches with little warning or information, and about how they were using them.

One dad wrote to us to ask if this is allowed at all. Another father emailed to say his childrens’ school had refused to give them the packed lunches he’d sent them to school with, saying that they now had a policy of school meals only. When he checked the school’s lunch policy, this wasn’t mentioned anywhere. A mum dropped us a line to say she was in a similar dilemma.

Confused? Frustrated? Worried? So were these parents. We’re all agreed that we want children to have a good lunch at school: most teachers agree you can see the difference in a child’s ability to do well in class when they’ve eaten a decent meal (scientific studies show this too, including ours in primary and secondary schools, and this one which found that children in pilot areas where they were all able to have free school meals made up to 2 months more progress than their peers elsewhere).

That’s why our advice to every school is to be very clear about lunchtime policies, so that children’s nutrition doesn’t suffer. If your school’s thinking about starting something new at lunchtime or making a change, talk to parents about it first: see what they think, discuss any concerns they have and find a way to resolve them. Most important of all, keep parents informed – through your newsletter, your headteacher’s blog, your website, letters home, your Twitter feed – on any decisions that are made.

As a parent, if you’re not happy about lunchtime policies at your child’s school, you might want to start by talking to someone on the school’s leadership team (the head, the deputy or your child’s head of year) or to one of your school’s governors (parent governors are often a good start); they’re responsible for the policies in place at your child’s school. There’s strength in numbers, too, so see if other parents feel the same.

When it comes to policies which ban packed lunches, the Department of Education says that schools can set their own policies relating to food, and that can include requiring pupils to have a school lunch. But whatever the policy, the key is communicating it well.

Three top tips to remember:

Research shows school meals are more nutritious than the vast majority of packed lunches, which is why some schools opt not to allow lunchboxes at all
• Parents of children having school meals often report that it helps with fussy eating. In one survey we did, 8 out of 10 mums and dads whose children have school meals told us that they’ve tried something in school which they never eat at home
• Even if your child is still really fussy or isn’t making very good choices from the canteen, school cooks and lunchtime supervisors can be your greatest ally. Have a chat with them and see if they can help encourage your child to have a go of something new – even little tastes will help.

Claire’s one of our nutritionists. Email Claire here. For advice on starting new school food policies, visit our website or contact our team of advisors.