School Food Review

Too many children are still missing out on good quality, nutritious school food. Now is the time for reform, to realise the full potential of the school food system.

School Food Matters is leading the campaign for a government-led overhaul of school food policy and funding. Together with Bite Back 2030 and The Food Foundation, and with support from Impact on Urban Health, we are coordinating a campaign involving players from right across the school food system. We have formed a coalition that includes representatives of catering staff, school leaders, local authorities, experts, campaigners, and, of course, school children.

Despite the advances and progress made in the government’s School Food Plan, our recent engagement with schools highlights that too many children are still missing out on good quality, nutritious school food.

We have identified five ‘pillars’ of the school food system: areas which need reform. These are:

1. Entitlement

Entitlement: the eligibility criteria that currently exclude millions of children who would benefit.

Currently, one in three children who live in poverty are not entitled to free school meals. This is increasing food insecurity, and worsening health and educational outcomes.

All children at school should be provided with healthy, tasty meals, one additional piece of fruit or vegetable each day, and all ingredients for cooking lessons. Free school meal provision improves health and educational outcomes, especially amongst children from lower income families.,

The Government should:

  • Work towards a long-term goal of providing universally, comprehensively funded, healthy and nutritious school food, recognising the long-term economic contribution the policy provides on improving health, attainment and productivity.,
  • As a first step, raise the household earnings threshold for free school meal entitlement to £20,000/ all children from families in receipt of universal credit, so that more children living in poverty are eligible for free school meals
  • Ensure all children are able to access a school breakfast club
  • Following the permanent extension of free school meals eligibility to children from disadvantaged backgrounds with no recourse to public funds, further extend eligibility to undocumented children
2. Procurement, operations and contract management

Procurement, operations and contract management, that can fail to deliver consistently nutritious, sustainable and enjoyable food to our children.

School food procurement is complex and inefficient. The current school food standards should do more to encourage the health of people and the planet. Staff need to be properly supported, resourced and trained. 

Effective school food standards should be adhered to throughout the school food supply chain to ensure nutritious, sustainable and tasty food for our children. Cost must never be more important than quality. A fulfilled, well-trained and engaged workforce should operate in a properly resourced environment. Schools should encourage healthy options, provide only free water to drink and encourage sustainability. School catering facilities should be used as community assets that encourage integration with the wider community.

The Government should consider how to:

  • Ensure school food procurement is weighted to deliver quality over cost, by mandating improved government buying standards (including adherence to a relevant accreditation scheme)
  • Ensure that revised school food standards meet appropriate health and environmental concerns, reducing meat and sugar, and increasing fibre consumption
  • Provide school business leaders and catering staff with relevant training on school food procurement and contract management.
3. Accountability and quality assurance

Accountability and quality assurance, to support quality provision, and ensure that children receive nutritionally balanced food at school.

Currently, school food standards are not always being met in schools, which means that children are not getting the nutritious food that they need. There is a lack of data to help identify success stories or cause for concern.  There is not currently an effective framework in place for schools to provide accountability and to ensure quality of provision.

Schools and their catering teams should report and be independently inspected, with input from pupils, to ensure that school food is nutritious, enjoyable, is part of a healthy school environment and provides good value for money.

We welcome the government’s commitments in the Levelling Up White Paper to work with the Food Standards Agency to pilot quality assurance mechanisms in certain local authorities, to provide additional training for governors and teachers, and to require schools to publish and report information on their food provision.

The Government should:

  • Confirm the date by which schools’ food statement publication will become mandatory. Ensure these statements include how school food funding is spent, how schools comply with school food standards, school meals uptake rates, and what training is provided for catering staff to deliver quality meals. These statements should include a school food policy and action plan, and both documents should be cross-checked by Ofsted.
  • Work with the Food Standards Agency to enable them to undertake a quality assurance role in school kitchens, and ensure enough resources are available to roll out the piloted quality assurance mechanisms to more local authorities.
  • Adopt a school food accreditation scheme that promotes a ‘whole school approach’.  This will provide schools with a framework for progress towards excellence, working from the baseline provided by the mandatory reporting outlined in the Levelling Up White Paper.
  • Support teaching, governor, and catering team training, and issue up-to-date guidance on importance of a good school food culture
  • Ensure there are appropriate central resources by setting up a dedicated “Eat and Learn” team at DfE, and set up an “Eat and Learn” interactive website.
4. Uptake

Uptake: the administrative and stigmatic barriers to children accessing school food

Currently, uptake of school meals is variable, affected by quality, accessibility and image. Increasing uptake of both free and paid for school meals will lead to a more economically efficient system.  It will ensure more children access more nutritious food, reduce stigma, and boost the benefits of a ‘whole school approach’.

All children should be automatically enrolled for and take up school meals at every opportunity and see it as the best option available to them. Children should be central in developing the food offer as part of their contribution to ensuring their school is a healthy environment.

The Government should:

  • Implement auto-enrolment for free school meals to allow for registration without stigma and to ensure all those eligible can take up their entitlement to a school meal
  • Provide mandatory training for catering staff in child nutrition and the school food standards to improve quality and drive uptake, and how best to engage with parents and children
  • Introduce clear reporting of school food uptake for both free school meals and paid for school meals, as part of the school food accreditation scheme.
5. Funding

Funding: the convoluted system does not guarantee delivery of good nutrition on children’s plates.

Currently, schools receive funding for different school food interventions through a variety of mechanisms.  There is inconsistency in how funding is calculated and distributed to schools. This leads to confusion and means that how money is spent on food varies from school to school.

All schools should receive the funding they need to provide nutritious, enjoyable food to their pupils. The funding must be appropriate to cover food, staff and capital costs, and schools must be accountable for its spending. This funding should be delivered under one simple, transparent and clear mechanism that follows a consistent formula.

The Government should:

  • Provide a clear, simple and transparent school food funding mechanism that gives schools consistency and clarity on allocations and associated condition of grants for all the different school food interventions (such as free school meals, breakfast, the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme, and food education ingredients)
  • Ensure that all conditions of grant clearly link to the school food accreditation scheme
  • Increase funding for the School Fruit and Vegetable scheme and provide its funding direct to schools
  • Provide additional school food funding for small schools so that they can cope with adverse economies of scale
  • Ensure that specific daily funding of meal allowances, allocated by schools to pupils on free school meals, stay with the child
  • Ensure appropriate capital funding is available for schools needing to improve their kitchen and dining environments.