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The Food MagazineHealthier school meals, but why aren’t they free for all?

Published in The Food Magazine issue 82
11th August 2008

The government’s School Food Trust (SFT) has just published figures showing that the take up of school meals has gone up more than 2% in primary schools, whilst declining only slightly in secondary schools.

Average national take-up hovers around 45%, a figure not much changed in more than 20 years.

According to the SFT’s chief executive Judy Hargadon, “while today scotches the myth that children will not eat healthy school meals nobody should be fooled about the scale of the challenges ahead. Many teenagers still need a great deal of convincing and with rising food costs putting strain on the service this is a corner that needs to be turned as soon as possible.”

The Food Magazine has visited several schools recently, to ask about changes to school meals. The kitchen staff we spoke to were clear that they found their jobs more rewarding, that children are beginning to welcome healthier meals, but that they expected changes to take many years to really settle in.

The schools we visited also mentioned worries over the cost of meals – with many fearing that the price will soon rise to £2 for lunch. Children from families living on benefits receive lunches free, but those living on low incomes still have to pay the full cost.

As a healthy packed lunch can be produced for half that price, poorer families hardly have an incentive to opt in. Schools still lack the cash to redesign dining halls that can currently seat only a fraction of their student population.

Sadly, the UK government has failed so far to put forward a free school meals for all policy, and a successful experiment in Hull (The Food Magazine 79) was scrapped when Labour lost control of the city council. Such a direction by government would help to make the service more financially viable, would improve the health of the poorest in our community and thereby save the NHS money in the long run.

Mark Bourne, catering manager at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson secondary school, in London, for years. Although Bourne is a firm believer that the school meals service should be a public one – much like the NHS – he says that recent changes have, “definitely been a big improvement for food quality.”

Bourne says that each year the new students coming from primary school are more open to trying out healthier dishes. The problem remains that the school has approximately 1,200 students, with dining hall seating for just around 150.

Challenges remain, Bourne notes, “We used to sell £600 a day worth of crisps and confectionery, these are now banned, and we make about £250 on healthier snacks. But, this is going up. I think there is a sea change, but we have to give it time.”