Food for Life is calling for universal provision of school meals and are supporting the Say Yes campaign launched on International School Meals Day, the 9th of March.
To make sure we get our asks right and the support of the catering sector, we brought together an expert group of Food for Life caterers to discuss what the practicalities are in making universal school meals happen. These are our key findings:
- Go fast and go slow
There are challenges currently within the school catering system that require immediate attention. Government should move swiftly to support struggling caterers and enhance school meal provision, ensuring that every child in need receives a free school meal. But there are risks posed by a rush to implementation of ambitious policies. Universal Free School Meals should be phased in over a suitable time period, with full realisation by 2030.
2. Respect context
Across England, school meals are served in very different contexts and by very different providers. In designing and delivering a universal school meal policy government must recognise context, recognising the differing needs and challenges of rural vs urban schools, large vs small schools, and affluent vs deprived areas.
3. Focus on people
School cooks and caterers, lunchtime supervisors, and every individual engaged in the school food ‘ecosystem’ will be central to the success of a Universal FSM policy. In the near term there is an urgent need to support caterers to attract and retain staff. A clear policy environment and direction of travel, coupled with ongoing investment in the system, will be required.
4. Quality and standards matter
All schools should be providing food on a level playing field, with the School Food Standards uniformly implemented. This will require greater focus from government on monitoring and compliance, attention to cost/quality ratios in tenders, and a shared commitment across the school food sector to excellence in school food and continuous improvement. With excellent food being served in many schools, success should be celebrated.
5. Better funding
School food funding mechanisms are complex and opaque. For a variety of reasons, money can ‘leak’ out of the system, disadvantaging caterers and dispossessing children of the meal they rightly deserve. School food funding mechanisms should be reviewed and rationalised, with delivery of funding linked to evidence of a whole school approach and compliance with School Food Standards. In the context of rising inflation, government should make sure that caterers receive the funding they need.
Universal school meals are possible, but cooks and caterers need the right support and long-term political commitment. The benefits of universal provision do not only stretch to children, their futures, and their families. Expansion to universal school food could have a significant positive impact on the catering sector as long as the right timeline and support mechanisms are in place.
Our Policy Officer Laura Chan has put together a summary of evidence in support of Universal Free School Meals, which demonstrates through a range of research and studies the proven benefits of Universal Free School Meals.