Welcoming back hot and healthy school meals

The Covid-19 pandemic and the repeated closure of schools for the majority of children has highlighted the social, economic and educational importance of school food. Stephen Forster, national chair of LACA, reflects on the challenging start to the year and the return of hot and healthy school meals

The Covid-19 pandemic and the repeated closure of schools for the majority of children has highlighted the social, economic and educational importance of school food. There has never been a more important time to provide free school meals as more and more families struggle financially with the economic impact of the pandemic.

Our members have risen to the challenge. They have worked tirelessly to ensure that children continue to receive nutritious school meals, either through a food parcel if they are learning at home, or through a hot meal if they are a child of a key worker at school. I cannot thank our members enough, whether they are local authority providers, contract caterers or a supplier, for the role they have played in ensuring that no child goes hungry at this most difficult time.

A tough start to the year

The start of 2021 posed the toughest challenge yet for our industry. On 4 January, the Prime Minister announced a third national lockdown, which saw schools closing for the second time in England the following day. Our industry had not been pre-warned and had only stocked food that was appropriate for hot school meals. Many pupils had returned to school for just one day. Following the announcement, our members subsequently had to quickly adjust our service in order to provide food parcels to all children entitled to free school meals.

The majority of our members rose to this challenge and provided thousands of fantastic food parcels at short notice. Despite this, a small number of food parcels produced in the first days of the new lockdown were not up to the standard that we as an industry expect. The images that were circulated on social media were not acceptable.

LACA acted quickly and issued a statement making it clear that the parcels in question did not meet the guidelines we helped to write in conjunction with the Department for Education and Public Health England. The Department for Education subsequently set up a hotline for any parents who had concerns regarding the quality of their school food parcels. Despite there being a limited number of calls to the hotline, the industry recognised that one call is one too many.

Funding issues

The Department for Education also rightly recognised that the funding levels for food parcels were too low. LACA managed to secure a £3.50 uplift per parcel, reflecting the labour and food costs needed to produce them. Following the uplift, LACA – with input from the Department for Education and Public Health England – decided to review and strengthen the food parcel guidance. We also set out a number of principles for providing lunches over the five days each week where children are learning from home. We are pleased by the positive response this has received.

The need for a funding uplift has demonstrated that the existing average of £11 funding, per week per child, for free school meals served in schools is not sustainable to provide a service that meets the school food standards and the high standards we as an industry measure ourselves against. This is all the more apparent when set against the £15 value of free school meal food vouchers.

This was not addressed in the Budget on 3 March, but LACA continue to call on the Government to ensure that the funding for school meals, and in particular Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM), is set at a sustainable rate.

We have called for this in three ways. First, the funding rate for each meal delivered in school should rise from £2.34 to at least £2.51, which is in line with inflation, to ensure providers can continue to deliver UIFSM successfully. Second, for the UIFSM funding rate to rise annually in line with inflationary indices reflecting cost parameters for the service. Third, LACA also supports the call for UIFSM to be extended to all children whose parents are in receipt of Universal Credit, as recommended in the National Food Strategy’s interim report. As an organisation, we want to ensure that no child falls through the gap as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to exert further pressure on family finances. In addition, the school meal industry employs upwards of 100,000 people. If no further funding is provided for UIFSM it is likely that some service providers would face financial difficulty, pressuring them to make difficult decisions.

Looking forward

Encouragingly, there is now hope for many on the horizon. The vaccination programme is progressing well. The Prime Minister has set out his roadmap for easing restrictions. From March 8th, all pupils will now return to school. More importantly, this will allow for the return of hot food served in school for all pupils. The National Voucher Scheme has been a useful stop-gap, but nothing beats a hot and healthy meal cooked in school. At the most recent LACA Webinar, I was delighted to launch the LACA Marching Back to School Campaign. This is a new national campaign to encourage schools to restart the serving of hot lunches, and to reassure parents in sending children back to the dining room. I encourage all readers of Education Business Magazine to get involved and back this fantastic initiative. More information and resources can be found on the LACA website.

Lastly, I am delighted that the roadmap also means that LACA can confirm that two of its most loved setpiece events can take place this year. First, the LACA School Chef of the Year Competition will showcase the extraordinarily talented and dedicated school chefs that we have working in our industry. This year the event has a new sponsor, Quorn Foods. The entry deadline for aspiring champions closes on 23 April, with regional finals starting in June. Second, the LACA Main Event will take place from 12-14 October at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole. This is the only national event dedicated to the school food sector, and after months of being only able to see so many of you through a virtual means, I cannot wait to catch up in person, enjoy hearing from a terrific line up of speakers and meet all the exhibitors.

To conclude, our members cannot wait to get back to providing hot, healthy and nuturious meals for children in school each day. The return of all pupils to the classroom, in a safe and Covid-secure manner, cannot come soon enough. In the meantime, LACA will continue to champion its members, help represent the industry and contribute to the Government’s agenda for the future of school food provision.