The issues faced by school meal providers

Price increases and food shortages are some of the issues faced by the school meals industry, according to research by LACA, who is calling for increased funding for Free School Meals

LACA has conducted a survey of school meal providers operating in 9,874 schools, feeding 1.8m pupils every day. The results paint a stark picture of the challenges facing the school food industry across England and Wales.
According to the survey 91 per cent of respondents are experiencing food shortages, with over 60 per cent saying this has not improved since May 2022 (when the last LACA survey was conducted). Bread, fish, cheese, pasta and potatoes are the items most affected.
Since the survey in May, prices have risen by a further 30 per cent across the board, this is in addition to the 20 per cent price increases that its members reported in May (compared with April 2020). Some caterers have experienced 50 per cent price increases since May 2022.
The survey shows that 76 per cent of LACA members have had to change their menu because of food shortages. Twenty-eight per cent are now using more processed foods to cope with rising costs, and almost 35 per cent are now considering switching from British meat to foreign meat – an increase of almost eight per cent since May 2022. Twenty-four per cent of members may have to reduce cost through the quality of meat purchased, and over half (52.2 per cent) expect the quality of school meals to continue getting worse over the coming weeks and months.

Additional challenges
The sector is facing a recruitment challenge, 74 per cent of LACA members are facing a lack of applicants, with kitchen assistants the hardest position to fill. Recruitment has not improved since May for 87 per cent of respondents.
Whilst 94 per cent of LACA members are still able to meet the school food standards, which are mandatory, this is coming at a great cost. Already LACA members are saying that they have had to reduce portion sizes and offer less choice to cope.
Meeting the School Food Standards is unlikely to be sustainable in the long-term without an increase in funding from the government. The 2.9 per cent increase in Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) funding announced in June is insufficient to deal with the challenge the industry is facing.

LACA are urgently calling on the government to increase funding per meal for both UIFSM (currently £2.41) and FSM (currently £2.47) to address the current cost of living crisis and for this to increase annually with inflation. LACA believe this funding increase is a necessary investment in children’s futures.

Eligibility for Free School Meals
Additionally, LACA is calling on the government to increase the FSM eligibility threshold to include all children whose parents are entitled to Universal Credit. Around 800,000 children are thought to be going hungry because they are not entitled to an FSM, but their parents cannot afford to buy them a school lunch. Too many children are falling through the cracks.
To ensure funding follows the child, LACA are also calling for school meals funding to be ring fenced. The budget is currently issued to schools who do not always pass the full amount to the caterer to provide school meals.
In May, over one-third (38 per cent) of LACA’s members who responded said they did not receive the full funding per meal for FSM. Similarly, 28 per cent of our members who responded said they did not receive the full UIFSM amount.
Commenting on the survey’s findings, Brad Pearce, chair of LACA, said: “Despite the best efforts of our members and dedicated frontline staff, the school meals industry is on its knees. The challenges facing our industry are set to get worse over the coming weeks and months. Without an increase in school meal funding the most vulnerable children in our society will go without, possibly, their only hot, healthy, and nutritious meal of the day.
“We are also urging the government to raise the FSM entitlement threshold to all children whose parents are on Universal Credit, to ensure that no child misses out on a school lunch. A hungry child cannot learn, but for too many children this could soon become their reality.”

Championing the food industry
The food and drink supply chain All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) was established this year by a cross party group of MPs to champion the food and drink supply chain in Parliament. It seeks to shine a light on a complex industry and tackle the misconceptions that exist, by providing a forum to explore the challenges it faces and what Government action is needed to overcome those issues.
The group met with MPs to discuss the issues faced by the industry. They heard that greater support is needed from the Government on school meals to ensure that growing supplier costs do not result in a reduction in quality and nutrition for children.
The group have told MPs that early advanced warnings must be given in the event of blackouts to safeguard the provision of food and drink. MPs also heard that redundancies, business closures and a sharp decline in investment are likely to follow should businesses within the food supply chain miss out on energy support after March.
Ian Mace, head of government affairs and policy at Associated British Foods, said: “We’ve seen the ONS data that food price inflation is approaching 15 per cent, most commentators would believe there is some way to go, and we would certainly agree with that.”
The APPG will be issuing recommendations for Government upon the conclusion of the inquiry.

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