Government Food Strategy Found Wanting

13 June 2022
The government’s white paper response to the National Food Strategy Plan has been published, but it lacks content and compulsion.

Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy: The Plan contained a wealth of progressive recommendations for the government to improve the food system’s impact on the health of people and planet. The government has spent almost a year writing its response and today the paper has been received with disappointment.

Many of the key recommendations, such as extending the eligibility criteria for free school meals, were ignored. The document recognises that the ‘pandemic highlighted the importance of school provision of healthy and nutritious food; an invaluable lifeline to many children and young families, especially those on low incomes.’ It therefore seems remiss to not address the fact that one in three children living in poverty cannot access free school meals. For those recommendations that were included, without a commitment to a food bill there is not the legal rigour needed to ensure they are realised.

The document regurgitated a number of parts of the Levelling Up White Paper, including references to enhanced monitoring against the school food standards. It also mentioned that school leaders will now be required to publish a ‘school food vision’ on school websites, a firmer commitment than has previously been seen.

There was a mention of the Get Help Buying for Schools service, to assist schools with procurement, but this has been in the pipeline for over a year. Several other areas mentioning schools were diminished to being ‘kept under review’, including the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme and free school meals eligibility.

Widening the scope of the Government Buying Standards for Food (GBSF) is also identified as an area for review, which may include schools in the future. However, the school food standards are at least as stringent as the GBSF and their updated version still needs to be implemented.

Many of the health-related elements of Dimbleby’s Plan have been omitted, with an expectation they may be picked up in the upcoming Health Disparities White Paper. However, the food system is cross-cutting and a joined-up approach to address health, education and environmental issues is needed to secure a good food future for all.

“The government’s response is disappointing as it fails to address many of the issues we are seeing in schools. While commitments to improve food education are reiterated, these are nothing new. Failing to take this opportunity to expand free school meals in the middle of a cost of living crisis is out of touch with the reality for so many families. I urge the government to reconsider Dimbleby’s proposals in full, and make the ambitious changes needed to safeguard our children’s health and future environment.”

  • Stephanie Slater, Founder/ Chief Executive, School Food Matters

We urge the government to heed the feedback from numerous experts: that this paper has considerable gaps and lacks teeth. At a time when many people are struggling to put food on the table, the paper seems disconnected from the reality of the state of our food system. School food in particular needs reform across a number of areas, which have been identified along with solutions by the School Food Review Working Group.

"The National Food Strategy presented another opportunity for the government to extend free school meals to more children, one which it has today passed up. It is disappointing to see further inaction from the government on safeguarding our children’s health. The austere eligibility threshold for free school meals is set at a household income of £7,400 per year, before benefits. This means that one third of children in England living in poverty are not entitled to a hot, nutritious lunch every school day. The School Food Review working group calls on the government to make right this omission, by extending free school meals to all those children from families on universal credit, advancing towards universally provided free school meals."

  • Dr Nicholas Capstick OBE, Chair, School Food Review Working Group 

The paper can be read here.