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


School food contracts ‘driving down food quality’? I don’t think so.


So, as the horsemeat scandal continues to unfold, Iceland boss Malcolm Walker reckons local authorities contracting for school food are partly to blame for the wider issue of the poor quality of some food on sale to us on the high street.

Quite how this argument stacks up is beyond me. We all know that the dismal age of compulsory competitive tendering during the 80s and early 90s had an impact on the quality of food served in schools, sending it in precisely the wrong direction. That’s why things changed. Jamie Oliver began his school dinners campaign; the Children’s Food Trust was created; national legislation was introduced to set minimum standards that all schools have to meet for children’s nutrition; millions of pounds were invested in training for school cooks, kitchen equipment and facilities and support to schools to create healthier menus and recipes. The job’s far from over but how things have changed since then: the legislation means schools now put far more emphasis on cooking from scratch; they serve less processed food; and they have to meet minimum requirements for the meat products they do serve. In their procurement of food, local authorities and schools are required not just to meet those nutritional requirements but also to complete due diligence on those who supply them – they simply can’t look at price alone. Some go the extra mile, wanting to source products locally or striving for specific awards for the provenance of their food. If less reliable parties in the supply chain can’t deliver what they have promised, local authorities and schools are the very unhappy victims of this – not the cause.

Let’s not forget that far from trying to drive down food quality, many local authorities also continue to subsidise school meals so they don’t have to pass on higher costs to parents. In our annual survey last year, of 62 councils who gave us information on their financial expectations, only 10 said they expected to make a surplus. The rest expected to break even or run at a deficit. Feeding kids good food at school isn’t about making profit (much as many would like it to be): it’s about delivering the right service for children.

But there is one area where you could definitely argue a link between poor quality food, supermarkets and schools. The biggest challenge for school caterers is the perception that it’s so much cheaper to make a packed lunch. In survey after survey, teachers report seeing children with little more than a lunchbox full of sugar. Families who are struggling are bombarded with offers on products containing little more than empty calories – the crisps, the chocolate biscuit bars, the processed cheese – and money talks. But it’s a false economy for children’s nutrition, as research repeatedly shows.

Mum might have ‘gone to Iceland’. She’d be better having a chat with the school cook.

Judy Hargadon’s our Chief Executive.  

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.