Take up of school lunches

In their report on Food in Schools, Ofsted inspectors observed that take up of school meals had declined since the introduction of the government’s new standards for school food in 2006.  They recommended that schools identify the barriers to take up of school meals and seek to eliminate them. 

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Here in rural Somerset, the most significant barrier to take up of school meals is lack of ability to provide them in the first place.  The 1980 Education Act gave Local Authorities the power to axe school meal provision.  In 1991, the Conservative-led County Council in Somerset closed its central school meals service.  By 2005, 209 out of the 271 schools in Somerset were without production kitchens, many having converted them into computer suites.  Now, less than 20 years later, the government is exhorting schools to provide hot lunches again.  Not only this, but “it would like all schools to be model suppliers of healthy, local and sustainable food and drink.  Food should, where possible, be produced or prepared on site.”  To assist in achieving these goals, which are undoubtedly worthwhile, it has provided each primary school with £1070 p.a. + 50p per pupil and each secondary school with £1500 p.a. + 50p per pupil, for 3 years.  

In spite of the inadequate investment, many Somerset schools have been determined to offer pupils the option of a healthy hot lunch, recognising the clear link between diet and children’s health, behaviour and academic performance.  This goal is particularly challenging for small rural primary schools who have no kitchens and, in some cases, no halls either. 

In one small primary school in Somerset, the headteacher set up a contract for meal provision with a Local Authority catering provider.  Initially, the caterer said they would be unable to provide transport for the food but he begged them and they relented.  He then realised that he had no-one to do the washing up, so he persuaded the man who drives the delivery van to help out.  His next hurdle was to find somewhere for the children to eat, as his school does not have a hall.  He negotiated for use of the village hall, only to find that the tables and chairs there were too high for the children.  He applied to the Local Authority for grant money to purchase child-sized tables and chairs, to be told that he would not be eligible as the furniture would not be stored on the school premises.  Having procured furniture by other means, he was faced with an insurrection from his lunchtime supervisors, who complained about the extra work involved in setting up tables and serving food as well as supervising the children.  Initially, insufficient quantities of food were delivered, some of it congealed, adding to his angst.  He then found that he had to extend the lunch break, as it takes longer for children to eat hot lunches than packed lunches and there was insufficient time for the lunchtime clubs.  This headteacher is not alone in having to move mountains to provide healthy, hot lunches in a small rural primary school. 

In my role as a school governor, I worked for a year to implement hot lunches when my children were at the village primary school, overcoming challenge after challenge; this was all on a voluntary basis.  There is no kitchen at the school, so two cooks were hired and the kitchen of the Community Hall used to create delicious home-cooked meals using locally produced ingredients.  The food is transported to school in insulated containers in the back of a car.  As it is an old Victorian school, there is no dining hall either.  So at 1200, in an exercise of logistics and imagination that would impress the British army, the Year 3 and 4 classroom is transformed into a dining area.  The meals then have to be served, cleared away and all the furniture moved back to recreate a classroom by 1300.  

Since the project started in June 2007, take up has remained at between 70 to 90 per cent.  Even some children whose parents have not signed up and paid, have been known to sneak in hoping that someone will take pity on them and give them a meal instead of them having to eat the jam sandwich in their packed lunch box.  

Delivery of the project was almost completely reliant on volunteer help and local fund-raising, which included a grant from our Parish Council.  Due to parents’ inability to pay, meals are only provided on two days per week, and the current economic situation and the rising cost of food further threatens the viability of the project.  Without subsidies for school lunches, it is virtually impossible to ensure widespread provision and take up of quality hot lunches, even when there is support from staff, governors and parents.   

So, come on Mr Brown – if you really care about the nation’s health and well-being, put your money where the children’s mouths are.

If you are a caterer, or have a role in encouraging healthier catering practices, and would like training and information on the effects of diet on health and practical tools to achieve healthier eating in the population, why not sign up for a Healthier Catering Training Course.  This two-day course, which can be delivered in any location on request, will enable you to:

  • Understand the basic principles of nutrition
  • Be aware of the importance of food in the maintenance of health and well-being
  • Appreciate the role of lifestyles and culture in influencing diet
  • Recognise the potential benefits for both caterers and customers of providing a choice of healthier options
  • Know more about ingredient selection and methods of food production and processing that can be used to create healthier options, whilst being attractive and convenient to modern tastes and lifestyles
  • Be able to apply appropriate and relevant skills and knowledge when advising catering businesses or when planning, preparing, promoting and serving healthier foods 
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