The UK nutrition recession – are school meals the answer?

This week I attended this FUSE conference at Sunderland university where I joined others who are interested in the role school dinners can play when it comes to the twin dilemmas of austerity and obesity.

A few people thought you might like to see my speech, so here it is. I’ve added in the visual presentation that went alongside it but it was just for illustration. If you want to look at the corresponding slides, I’ve added the slide numbers in alongside.

My speech, and the other very interesting presentations are available for download here.

FUSE presentation 1


(2.) Hello. Thank you for inviting me here today. I’m Siobhan. I’m a freelance journalist and I’ve been writing about catering and school meals ever since Jamie Oliver first made them news. Even if you haven’t read my stuff, there’s a fairly good chance I’ve Tweeted you about school meals, spoken animatedly with you about school meals, or interviewed you about school meals. It’s fair to say that when it comes to the subject of school dinners, I am (3.) a bit of a catering geek.

It’s hard to believe in a way that something that’s so central to all of our lives now, has only been this media and political football for eight years. His Jamie’s School Dinners series first went out in February 2005. Perhaps because this happened to be just a month after my (4.) first daughter was born, like so many other parents, the exposé really captured my attention. Right then I had no idea that it would turn out to become a core focus of my career.

(5.) Fast forward eight years and I for one am grateful that the upheaval and the investment and the hard work that followed Jamie’s report, by so many different people, has brought such a massive change to the meals that my daughter now regularly enjoys.

(6.) So the story of how we got here from there has been complex and involved. Since I began writing about school meals I have spoken with MPs, and representatives of LACA, The Children’s Food Trust (School Food Trust as was), school cooks, parents, students, independent caterers, unionists, GPs, obesity experts, NHS and Dept of Health representatives, nutritionists, teachers, governors, food manufacturers and the Department for Education. Probably a few more besides.

At several points in this short school meal journey, these different groups have not always seen eye to eye. Big changes imposed in a short space of time led to conflict between opposing groups pitching LACA against the School Food Trust, parents against schools, governors against caterers, teachers against the DoE, manufacturers against the government. It has not always been easy or friendly, and at various junctures members of these different groups have often spoken out quite passionately in favour of their own cause and against their perceived opponents.

As an outside observer with no particular agenda, these conflicts didn’t always make sense to me, because no matter what was going on or how hard people were struggling with the changes or how dire they predicted the future to be, you know what they all said? Every single one?

(7.) They all said, we want better, tastier, healthier school meals for our kids.

And guess what? They did it! Even in spite of all the arguments and reluctance and grim predictions and protestations and heel dragging, they did it. In primary and secondary (8.) schools caterers serve meals that meet the fourteen nutritional standards and they are trying to be creative with their menus, and yes uptakes did drop for a bit but they have been steadily climbing for several years and that is undoubtedly something that all those different people I named can justly feel very proud of.

They did it. And mostly all those groups are now working together to continue to make improvements. And happily my daughter is one of millions reaping the rewards. And given the weather we’ve been having recently I remain incredibly grateful for the knowledge that she is going out to play with a warm and healthy meal in her tummy.

(9.) But you know the nature of the world. Just when you think everything is hunky dorey, some new challenge comes up that makes everyone feel unsettled again. This current long-running recession of public sector cuts, parents with reduced incomes, rising food and energy prices, fears about the Universal Credit and a loss of ring-fenced funding has undoubtedly caused some new sleepless nights for those whose job it is to keep affordable meals rolling out of the schools serving hatches.

And this particular recession has brought with it a new issue affecting predominantly the worst off in UK society – it’s been dubbed a nutrition recession. In November last year reports began to come out that even in spite of the massive drive by the government and the DoH under the Public Health Responsibility Deal to improve the nation’s diets, almost a million fewer people were eating their five-a-day than they were two years ago.

Jamie Oliver’s school dinner series and his subsequent work looking at the state of Britain’s cooking skills revealed some troubling trends that many of us were already aware of. Children who couldn’t name even basic vegetables. Who didn’t know where milk or cheese or ham came from. Parents who let alone being unable to cook even basic dishes from scratch, were struggling to manage to microwave ready meals. Families with no table to sit at. Children unable to use cutlery.

These are the kids who are coming into schools and whom our teachers are seeing and educating every day. And now a lack of money is also being stirred into the mix. Yes poor diets of cheap, high calorie – sugar, salt, fat – ready meals, basics low cost meals and multipack offers are feeding the child obesity crisis. But worse than that, kids are going hungry. (10.)  83% of teachers have reported that they have seen children coming to school without breakfast or going hungry in the day.

Now some years ago when it was first mooted that cookery skills should be reintroduced into schools to begin to turn this trend that’s affecting, what, three generations, of families being unskilled in cookery? I heard people say that it wasn’t schools responsibility. Already hard-pressed teachers should not be the ones having to re-skill a nation in how to cook an egg.

And they’re right. It should never have been allowed to get this bad. And they shouldn’t be the ones who are having to pick the pieces up and try to make it better. But unfortunately (11.) we have to start somewhere, and with these things it’s always better to start at the bottom and build up, so we start with the kids. We show them. We re-skill them. We teach them and hopefully what’s been lost can slowly be replaced.

But in the meantime we have the more immediate problem. We have children whose diets are very poor and we have hungry children. Hungry children can’t learn. They’re tired, they’re disruptive, they’re moody – possibly aggressive. Children living off fat and sugar have massive energy peaks and troughs. They’ll be bouncing off the walls one minute and falling asleep at their desks the next. (12.) And that’s leaving aside the longer term health problems and cost implications.

(13.) In countries where education and hunger is a permanent issue, they use feeding programmes in schools to get the kids attending, learning and eating, and sadly it looks as though that’s a pattern we’re going to have to adopt in this country.

The easy one to tackle is hunger. You know, it’s easy to judge. It’s easy to sit in a position of relative comfort and think ‘what kind of parent doesn’t feed their kid breakfast? What kind of parent let’s their kid go hungry?’ And to sit back and do nothing. But we don’t know individual circumstances. Maybe it’s a mum working shifts and doing her best but occasionally something slips, or maybe it’s because someone is ill or disabled and some things get overlooked. Undoubtedly no parent wants their child to be hungry. But in the end who cares why? Let’s just do something about it.

(14.) Carmel McConnell of Magic Breakfast, a charity providing breakfast clubs in London schools with 50% free school meals says she’s spoken to head teachers who say they have children in their schools with scurvy, children fainting from hunger, crying with tummy pains. Schools who struggle with morning classes because children lack energy, schools who’ve given up trying to do PE in the mornings because the last proper meal some children ate was yesterday’s school dinner. Carmel estimates that in a school with 50% of children on free school meals, around 100 children will be hungry or malnourished.

You can’t listen to stories like that and not think that providing a simple breakfast – Carmel’s clubs typically offer porridge or a bagel – is an easy and essential solution. Cost implications are low, and rewards are high when it means that kids are satisfied and happy and ready to learn. Then schools improve and results climb.

And of course Mike’s research has shown that breakfast clubs have a big impact on learning, attendance, concentration and results. And we know that people who eat breakfast are less likely to become obese.

Should schools have to do this? No. Of course not. In an ideal world schools would simply be a place where happy, healthy children cheerfully arrive every day and behave (15.) impeccably and learn to the best of their ability and trot home at the end of the day to the arms of their fabulous parents and their 1.4 siblings to enjoy a stable family life, plenty of food and a good sleep before eagerly returning the next day.

But sadly we don’t live in an ideal world, and if some families can’t provide, and schools won’t provide, who else will? Currently 50% of teachers say they bring in food from home to feed the hungry children in their classes. That definitely shouldn’t be happening.

Carmel and Magic Breakfast and the incredible and brave and inclusive and trail-blazing breakfast scheme in Blackpool have shown that it can work. Money and willingness can be found. And it does make a difference. A big difference in a very short space of time. (16.) And for Magic Breakfast it costs just 22p per breakfast. £3.50 to give a child a breakfast for a month.

For the teachers whose students can now concentrate and participate, who’re more controlled and showing better results, there’s no question it’s worth it. And as a society, where hunger has been prevented for seven and a half thousand children in one city (thanks to Magic Breakfast), there really can’t be any other response except acknowledgement that this was a good and right thing to do, can there?

(17.) But now the issue of whether school meals can provide a longer term solution to the problems of malnutrition and obesity is a more complex one. It is undoubtedly the case that for many children their free school meal is pretty much the only hot meal they receive each day. And with the problems of families who have little understanding of nutrition, or means or skill to cook anything but the kinds of quick and easy supermarket meals which are lacking in many of the vitamins and minerals we would generally consider essential to a healthy diet, school meals have taken on a whole new meaning.

When Jamie Oliver began his quest to improve school meals, I think he probably just wanted something reasonably healthy served up to kids for their £2 per day. It’s like, if you’re going to make that kind of investment, let’s at least ensure the return is reasonably good for you.

(18.) But in an age where we talk of a nutrition recession, suddenly those fourteen nutritional guidelines that were so fiercely battled over have an added significance. Now school meals are not just about nutritional value for money, they’re potentially about ensuring the poorest children in society get the right energy and nutrients and salt and fat and sugar they need in at least one meal a day.

(19.) It’s not always easy of course ensuring that the children who need it the most will get their free school meal. It requires someone on the school team to show dedication, empathy and tenacity. But there are financial rewards – via the pupil premium – for any school that makes the effort, and improved attainment and results for the school as well.

(20.) Universal Credit which begins any day now, is still a bit of an unknown as far as free school meals go. As late as December last year the government details remained vague about how the changes would affect free school meals, and even now beyond saying they are looking at it, they’ve yet to say how they will manage it. And believe me, I’ve asked people who should have some clue about it, and they seem unwilling to speak, or as in the dark as anyone else. It is worrying, but until we know more, there’s not much we can do about it.

(21.) What we can do is work with children and families to ensure that the healthy school meals we’re providing every day do the most good for those who need it the most. It’s not good enough to just send reminders home to parents to register for free school meals. Schools need to be proactive or kids will slip through the cracks. And the ones most likely to do so will be the ones whose parents least want to engage with the school.

(22.) But there are ways to get crafty about it. Cooking lessons for older children is one way. It’s been shown that when kids know how to cook one healthy meal they will take that skill home and transfer it to their family. They’re showing their parents how to cook. Schools can then capitalise on this by running short community cooking courses. Particularly if it offers something struggling parents could really use. At the Children’s Food Trust conference the other day someone talked about schools offering ‘feed a family for £20 a week’ courses.

(23.) There are many varied solutions to fit all the varied situations. Some schools I know have encouraged greater parental integration by opening a morning coffee shop or cafe where mums dropping kids off at school can then meet with other mums with smaller children to socialise. Some schools have even opened a Costa franchise on their grounds. It brings in revenue but also brings parents closer to the school. It gives the school a friendlier, less bureaucratic face.

Inviting the parents in to try the dinners is another way. But involve the kids. Parents are more likely to come if it’s a special invitation from their child. Maybe the children would have the chance to run the lunchtime like a restaurant, taking their parents’ orders and serving them their food. And present the parents with the means to register for free school meals at the end.

Ensuring children on free school meals remain anonymous is another essential. It sounds basic but you’d be surprised by the number of stories I hear about free school meals kids being sat at a different table, or being singled out because of the way payments are made. Solutions don’t have to be expensive. You don’t need to install a biometric payment system to ensure no one knows who the free school meals kids are, but if children order lunch in the morning and are given a coloured band for the meal they request, not only do you minimise waste, but those on free school meals can happily integrate at lunchtime with all their friends.

We tend to focus on primary school children, but free – and nutritious – meals for teens and those new to secondary school and less able to fend for themselves are equally important. Lunchtime gates need to be closed so kids have no choice but to eat in school.

(24.) When the nutritional standards were introduced to secondary schools, boy was there ever a racket kicked up about how hard it would be to achieve. Caterers shook their heads and cried into their frozen chips about how no students would ever be persuaded to eat a sit down dinner that met all the criteria. And I bet the head of McCain nearly had a heart attack.

But look how clever they got and how far they’ve come. Look, it isn’t perfect and we all know that some kids will only ever eat jacket potatoes or sandwiches, and that those students aren’t getting the benefit of a proper nutritionally balanced meal every day, but by getting clever with different serveries and staggered sittings, and providing hot options at morning break it is possible to ensure large numbers of secondary kids do get to eat a hot meal every day. (25.) And clever branded options like pasta and rice pots with sauces that meet the standards, or veggie packed pizza slices, or hot wraps and paninis that also meet the standards are great ways to appeal to the teen mind set, to serve quick hot food, to offer grab and go options, and to compete with the high street. All of which ensure better uptakes, healthier students and improved learning outcomes. I’m not just saying it to toe the party line. I’ve genuinely spoken to and seen schools making it happen.

And finally I’d like to wrap this up with an example of a headteacher who believes passionately in using her school to ensure that her students get the best nutrition she can possibly give them. She’s the headteacher of an academy, and I interviewed her last year, but she’s asked me not to name her or her school for today.

So it’s an all through school taking children in pre-school from three years right up to 16, and so in that way she has the ability to make the biggest difference for the longest period of time. The academy is located on the edge of a housing estate in a very built up area on the southern perimeter of a midlands city, and it is, in her own words a very deprived area. The children all come directly from the estate. They don’t arrive by bus. She has 53% of students accessing a free school meal. And an overall 80% uptake of meals.

(26.) I’m going to read in her own words, the ethos she applies to food in the school and why she thinks it’s important, and this is taken verbatim from the interview she gave me.

“What becomes a priority for you often depends on the nature of your school, so we do a lot of community work.

“There are a number of reasons why school meals are a big priority for us. One was because we’ve got whole families here. We’ve got very young children and we believe it’s really important to get them eating the right food from a very early age. If you get them into good habits you’ll help them long term.

(27.) “It’s an area of high deprivation. We recognise that the meals and food they have here are very important and if we want to raise standards at this school we’ve got to tackle social issues or we won’t move forward.

“The third reason is that going with that poverty we have quite a lot of obese parents. Obesity is an issue and potentially there is an issue there around our children. There are slightly more obese children in the school and we realised unless we deal with that it leads to bullying and name-calling which significantly impacts on them and their confidence levels.

“For us it’s about making food central to everything that we do, not just about the learning and what we teach in the food curriculum. If you genuinely believe that and you say that it’s important, then everything else has to follow from that. You have to make sure the food is healthy, you have to make sure that as many children as possible are accessing it, and you have to make sure that it is at the heart of what you do.

“If you walk into my school the first area you’ll see is the restaurant. It’s open plan. It is at the heart of the school. The area that children and families come to in the morning and sit and have breakfast and then disperse to learning, and it is the place where most of our children from six years of age up to 16 come at lunchtime and have their food.

“If parents are here for a meeting they can come in and have a meal if they want, and every morning when the parents drop the children off they come in and have breakfast with the children if they like, but then they can stay for tea and coffee afterwards which is free, and what it does is give them social time and it gives us a chance to speak with parents.

“If you believe that it’s important for the students to have a quality time and quality experience you have to think about how you manage lunch time so you don’t end up with people saying ‘I’m not having lunch because I have to queue too long or I’m not having lunch because I never get a chance to sit down and eat it. So all our tables have fresh flowers on each week. And all the children from a very young age use proper cutlery, glasses etc not plastic trays. It’s the whole experience.

“You can’t serve one and a half thousand meals in a half hour lunch because what ends up happening is a lot of children don’t have it. We have nearly two hours over our whole lunch period. It’s staggered because we want to make sure if that’s your half hour window, that you’ve got a seat to sit on for that half hour and you can eat your lunch in time. And that has played a significant role in increasing the number of children that have school meals.

“We cater in house and we make sure that the menus fit with our ethos and vision and meet our expectations of healthy meals, healthy food. We work to the nutritional standards but the standards are only a small part of it because if you work to those standards but 75% of your children bring in a packed lunch it’s not having any impact on the quality of healthy eating of the children within your school. I think that we should have standards and we work to them because they’re there for a reason. Whether or not they make them compulsory for academies in the end it’s about the moral purpose of individual organisations. And it is about how much health plays a part in that school.

“We make sure that the range of options fit the standards but within that the older children make their own choices. They’re not going to get chips every day because we only serve them once a fortnight and the message we’re giving is it’s fine to have chips but you only have them on occasion.

“Our rate per meal that we charge is £1.60 and that is less than the local authority charge. We want to get more children so we’re working on looking at variable rates for parents asking how much would it take to get more in? We’ve done a lot of research and found it’s parents who are just above the free school meal line who may have three or four children in the school. That’s £6.40 a day. If I can do a pack up for £3 that’s saving me £3.40 a day, it’s a lot of money. We are looking at a whole range of things to target them. Would they then have it if it cost £4 and £3 for a pack up – would they pay the extra pound? We couldn’t do that if we’d gone with the local authority. Because we’re open from 8 in the morning until late at night it’s not just the hot meal at lunchtime, there’s the breakfast club, it’s after school snacks for children that stay for clubs and for parents.

(28.) “We give every child a Christmas dinner for free. And any of the parents who come in. The day our Christmas dinner is served it is an experience not to be missed. They make their own decorations for the tables, they have their own tables, they have their own quality time and we serve them and they have it for free so that no child is in a position where that parent decided they would not have the school meal that day. It’s genuinely because we believe in the importance of that mealtime experience and sitting as a group. Nothing is about profit making. We want to do it for as little as possible whilst still providing a quality meal.

“We’re in a location where one of the parents said to us we don’t even have a table at home and I think everybody talks about deprived families not sitting down with the children round a table and I think they forget that sometimes the house isn’t even big enough to have a table. And we all go off for the Christmas holidays and we all think that on Christmas Day, all families across the country will be sat round tables having dinners and actually we’re wrong. Because in these families we question why do they eat burgers, why do they eat hand held food, why do they not know how to use a knife and fork, why do they not have quality family time? And firstly it’s because they’ve hardly any money to buy the food and the second thing is the houses are overcrowded, they often don’t have the space for a table and therefore there’s nowhere to sit, so they choose food they can eat where there’s lots of people running round.

“Children are only allowed to eat in the restaurant. It allows us to monitor what they’re eating. Anybody who wants packed lunch has to eat it in the restaurant. Young children have toast in their classrooms. We allow that as a group activity. And there is fruit time in the mornings.

“In the restaurant there is free fruit at break time. We serve healthy biscuits that are made on site, and we give fruit for free. There are no cans at any time, it’s all fruit juice based drinks or water.

(29.) “For me it’s about how important is this to you? It’s about your moral purpose for young children. Our catering team are providing the best meals they can for the children and we’re all realising that if the children eat healthy meals they’re more likely to do well at school and learn. It’s also our teaching of food, opportunities for tasting food, recognising foodstuffs from a very young age so we’ve got a lot of learning going on aside from what we’re delivering in the restaurant and the two have to go hand in hand. If food lessons are separate, if you’re teaching them about healthy food and they’re eating badly then we’re teaching double standards.

“In the end I think you should be considering how you increase the numbers of children that access school lunch not because you want to make more profit but because you want to make sure they’re getting a healthy and well balanced meal and therefore you need to think about the eating experience and how you organise your school day.”

Now, I’m not holding up that headteacher as a blueprint of how to make school food count in another school, because different schools face different issues that require different solutions. But I wanted to cite her words because she is someone who’s realised that the food she serves in school goes beyond fuel for kids. It reaches out into the community and helps those who are time or cash poor. It has the potential to reach out into the future to help with long term health issues and their associated cost implications. And it helps bind her staff and her students, and it helps bind the school to the community and I think the value of that is probably incalculable. And she’s absolutely committed to it, and she’s put her money where her mouth is because even though it’s an academy school and therefore to a certain extent is tied to a business model, she recognises there is a deeper value in ensuring as many of her children as possible receive a daily nutritious meal. For her it’s a moral issue, and I guess my point is, that when it comes to hungry malnourished children and schools then surely it should be a moral issue for all of us?

(30.) Thank you very much.


About Siobh

I am a freelance journalist and copywriter. My website will tell you everything you need to know.
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4 Responses to The UK nutrition recession – are school meals the answer?

  1. Mobbo says:

    Good gracious. Even more proud. Where did you get your smarts ?!

  2. Carl Neville says:

    Most important thing to me is getting young people eating the right food at an early age. Some households see it as impractical to cook wholesome fresh foods and choose the cheaper ready meal processed food option. This is a really good article with some excellent points. it saddens me to think that some children can not recognise basic vegetables.

    • Siobh says:

      Hi Carl,
      Thank you so much for your reply and kind words. I find it shocking, to be honest. Kids go with their parents to the supermarket. We used to play games at the checkout getting them to name the different fruits and veggies. But I suppose if parents don’t know how to cook from scratch then they aren’t picking up the veggies, they’re buying ready prepared food, so it’s unsurprising kids don’t know what a leek looks like. It is sad though. I really hope that now that people have realised that schools are doing more to talk about food and ingredients and where they come from, and hopefully bringing cooking lessons back will make a difference too.

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