Action plan sets out ways to tackle low take-up of school meals

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A plan of action commissioned by the Government last year to improve the quality and take-up of school meals has been published today.

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The School Food plan, drawn up by the founders of the Leon restaurant chain Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, includes a range of measures to drive-up school food standards and divert the £1bn it says parents spend on packed lunches back into the system.

Last year, the secretary of state for education Michael Gove asked the restaurateurs to work with schools, councils, caterers and Government to set out how to increase the number of children eating good food in schools.

According to the authors of the plan, the majority of children bring packed lunches to school as parents mistakenly believe that it is the healthiest option. However, the Government claims that just one per cent of packed lunches meet nutritional standards.

Actions included within the plan include a £1.18m cash injection from the Department for Education that organisations will be able to bid for to help turn around schools that are struggling with their lunch service.

A further £3.15m of funding has been made available to ensure thousands of children who arrive at school hungry are offered a healthy breakfast.

The DfE will also test and introduce a revised set of food-based standards applicable to maintained schools and all new academies and free schools by September 2014.

Alongside this, Ofsted inspections will focus more on the way schools promote healthy lifestyles and inspectors will consider behaviour and culture in the dining hall.

A recommendation within the plan that free school meals should be extended to all primary school children, is currently being considered by the Government.

Other measures within the plan include the launch of pilot schemes in two flagship London boroughs to help prove that better school food can have a significant impact on children’s health and attainment.

This will see every school in each area given co-ordinated support from expert organisations such as the Children’s Food trust to improve the quality and take-up of school meals promote good practice.

The initiative is to be funded by the DfE and the Mayor’s Office.

A practical checklist for headteachers, listing the most important things they or staff could to make a big difference to take-up of school food and food culture will also be introduced. Suggested actions include- banning packed lunches, having a stay-on-site rule for break and lunch time and encouraging teachers to eat with children.

Leon’s co-founder Henry Dimbleby said, ‘While we have been hugely impressed by the energy and enthusiasm we have witnessed among school cooks, teachers and others working to make school food great, our findings are clear, not enough children are eating well and not enough money is going into the school food system to ensure that it can provide great food and pay its way.

‘That’s why we have got to make a change. We need to ensure that children have the fuel they need in order to be happy and healthy and perform well at school. ‘

Mayor of London Boris Johnson said, ‘This is an ambitious plan that sets out a blueprint from which we can get kids to eat more healthily and to learn more about food.

‘All the evidence suggests that if children have a healthy school meal they’ll do better in the classroom and that’s something which is in everyone’s long-term interest. 

‘Through our forthcoming pilot we want London boroughs to help show the rest of the country that the link between great food and academic achievement is inextricable.’

Comments from the sector

Linda Cregan, chief executive of the Children’s Food Trust, said, 'Getting school food to where we all want it to be is going to take time.  We’re pleased to see such encouragement to headteachers to take a lead on food in their schools, support for standards in all schools to continue improving children’s nutrition, recognition of the vital role of the school food workforce and their skills, and help for smaller schools to make their meal services sustainable.

'The pledge of funding to give thousands of schools practical help with increasing take up is very welcome, as is investment to create new breakfast clubs in places where children are in greatest need. At a time when so many families on low incomes are struggling with the costs of food, we look forward to progress on the commitments to look at extending free school meals to more children and the call for universal free school meals in all primary schools.’

Fiona Twycross AM, who led the London Assembly’s investigation into food poverty earlier this year, said, ‘We welcome today’s announcement of support for two London Boroughs to demonstrate the fantastic impact a good food culture can have on health and learning in schools, and the wider community.

‘The School Food Plan echoes the findings of our recent report, which highlighted that even in the richest city in the world, food poverty is having alarming consequences, particularly among vulnerable groups such as children and older people.

‘Previous pilots demonstrated the considerable benefits of free school meals for all. I hope this new initiative will spur the Government into action on this very important issue and lead to free school meals being introduced more widely across London.’

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said. 'The benefit of having access to healthy food during the day is huge, both for pupils’ concentration and general well-being.

'Many children are coming to school hungry and their only main meal of the day is the school dinner.  Many families are finding it harder to make ends meet so the importance of free school meals for families on low incomes cannot be underestimated. 

'There is no justification for allowing academies and free schools to by-pass nutritional guidelines on food in schools. All schools have a responsibility to ensure the food children are served is nutritious and healthy. Equally worrying is the Government’s decisions to allow free schools to open in buildings such as dis-used offices where they little or no room for school kitchens in which to cook food, let alone many other facilities.'

Brian Strutton, GMB national secretary for public services, said, 'GMB members in school kitchens have been speaking up for some time about the terrible quality of packed lunches that some children are sent to schools with. We hear horrific reports of young children coming to school with a few biscuits, or a couple of slices of plain bread, or even nothing at all. Often our members give them some school food and the schools will often try to take it up with the parents but still it goes on.

'Unfortunately a poor quality packed lunch is often a cheaper option than paying for school meals and even parents that are entitled to claim school meals for free often do not want the stigma of doing so. GMB has long argued that the solution is free school meals for all.

'We could make a real impact by introducing free school meals in all primary schools at a cost of around £900m. This is about the same cost as the proposed married couples tax relief.'

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