If there was such a thing as a silver bullet for making sure that every child gets a great lunchtime experience at school, we would’ve fired it long ago. What’s clear, six years since we began our work, is that the task of helping the school meals service across the country to grow the market and become fully sustainable is still both huge and complex.
The list of factors in the mix is lengthy, continuing to make the case for why and how good food at school matters for children’s education and their performance – research proves that when children eat better, they do better, yet all too often food has to compete with the leaky roof or upgrading IT for so many hard-pressed schools.
Add to that the need to help schools meet some of the world’s toughest nutritional standards for school meals and showing their worth for children’s attainment and health; developing training opportunities; supporting schools with marketing menus on tight budgets; helping schools to protect kitchens and improve dining rooms, and to get better value for their services and supplies.
We are, however, seeing the steady impact. The number of children eating healthy school meals in England has climbed for the third year in a row, with more than three million children now having a school lunch every day. New figures, published in July by the School Food Trust and the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA), show that an average of 44.1 per cent of children in primary schools and 37.6 per cent of pupils in secondary school opted for school meals in the 2010/11 year, up from 41.4 and 35.8 per cent respectively in the previous year.
This means that around 173,000 more children had healthy school meals last year, compared with around 100,000 extra children in 2009/10. In total, more than three million children now eat a school meal every day, so the equivalent of almost 590 million healthy school lunches were served up last year. Figures in primary schools have now notched up a rise of almost 5 percentage points over just three years, more than compensating for the fall in take up seen after Jamie Oliver’s original campaign. Continued investment Crucially, despite the un-ringfencing of government funding for school food from April, the research also shows encouraging signs that schools are pledging to continue investing the money in good food at school. Two thirds of councils taking part in our survey (65 per cent) indicated that their catering services would continue to receive School Lunch Grant funding, with fewer than one in five indicating otherwise.
The average meal price across all schools was £1.93, a rise of 5p – less than 3 per cent and below the current rate of food inflation – on the previous year.
For me, there’s no better review for any restaurant than to see the number of returning customers going up each year – and that’s exactly what’s happening here, thanks to the hard work of cooks and catering teams, lunchtime supervisors, schools and councils.
But the majority of children are still bringing packed lunches to school, or get dinner money to spend in the local takeaway or supermarket. If we’re going to keep school meal numbers rising, we have to keep healthy school meals affordable. That means helping schools to grow their market, to get the best deals for their food supplies and services, to protect their kitchens and dining rooms and to operate their catering services efficiently. With more children registering for free school meals, we’ve also got to make sure that we continue to encourage more children to take them up.
At a time when funding is so tight everywhere, good school food is a solid investment in children’s learning and health. That’s why we’re setting out six staples of good food at school that will keep these figures rising: giving children enough time for lunch, decent dining rooms, freshly cooked food, affordable prices, stay on site policies and cooking in the curriculum.
Time and environment Children need enough time and space in which to eat their lunch. A 25 minute break simply isn’t enough for them to refuel and recharge their brains for the afternoon – research with children for the Trust found that lack of time to eat is one of the main things which can turn them away from the canteen. Queues have a significant impact on take up of school meals and are where bullying, pushing-in and intimidation tend to occur most frequently.
What’s most important to children isn’t what they eat – it’s where they eat. Get the environment and food right and children will want to eat in the canteen. It’s not about huge capital spending – small things that don’t cost the earth can make a huge difference. For example, our Small Step Improvements programme – which helps schools find small, low-cost ways to make lunchtime a better experience for their children – saw average take up increase in all five pilot areas where schools took part. One school increased school meals turnover by more than £12,000 in the six months after starting to make little changes – such as buddy systems to help younger students feel more confident in the dining area, re-arranging tables to improve capacity and allowing packed lunch students to sit with school lunch students.
The way in which school meals are prepared is linked to take up, which is why we need to protect freshly cooked food in schools. Research proves that more children tend to eat school meals in places where more schools can offer freshly cooked food. Helping schools to protect and improve their kitchen and cooking infrastructure is an investment in children’s performance at school.
Staying onsite Children miss out when they can go off-site for lunch. Polling for the Trust suggests that 90 per cent of parents think schools should adopt a stay-on-site policy at lunchtime, with 67 per cent agreeing that children would eat more healthily if they weren’t allowed to leave school at lunch.
It can help make sure that children don’t turn up late in the afternoons, and allows teachers to focus on behaviour in school rather than outside. Stay on site can also ease tensions with residents living near school and cut littering. Understanding food Learning to cook and understand food is too valuable to be an optional extra or “nice to have”. Cooking and food skills should be a compulsory subject in all schools. They enable children to learn the skills they need to make healthy and informed choices about the food they buy and eat, setting them up for life.
When children know how to eat better, they will do better. They offer practical ways to learn across the curriculum and secure the future success of a significant part of the UK food industry.
Keeping school meals affordable for parents is essential if we want more children to benefit from them. Our research proves that school food is particularly sensitive to changes in price, so schools need support to build their market, run their catering efficiently and to deal with rising costs.