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School meals – the time for change is now

Free school meal provision and the quality of food parcels have hit headlines, sparking high emotion and debate – and rightly so. Many families across the country received parcels that were not up to scratch, highlighting a system that is broken.

Food for Life’s co-founder, Jeanette Orrey, and her army of cooks and caterers have spent over 20 years showing what excellent school food can look like, working tirelessly behind the scenes for minimal pay and little consideration. Yet still, not all children are blessed with access to nutritious food every day.

The school meal system must be re-addressed now. Last week, we joined other organisations and high-profile campaigners to sign a letter calling on Government to urgently review and fix Free School Meal Policy, for the long term.

Government must fix the system that a rising number of vulnerable families rely on.

We spoke to Jeanette Orrey, who shares her thoughts.

School meals have always been a political hot potato, and the latest news about school food has exposed the unacceptable cracks in the system.

I would like to see all children having a hot school meal, and lunchtime being treated with the importance it deserves. Without wholesome food children cannot learn. Feeding our children should be made a priority within the school day, just like maths or English. 

We must improve the system in which free school meals are provided, removing the stigma associated with free school meals. 

Government support

We know there are excellent school meals being served by dedicated cooks and caterers across the country, but this is not the case everywhere. We now need to look at what these schools, cooks and caterers are doing and roll it out nationally.  To do this, we need Government support.

School meals should be properly funded, with ringfenced budgets, and there should be greater oversight of contracts, spend and standards. Food for Life schools have shown that excellence is possible; but we need the right policy to safeguard this excellence and help all schools achieve it.

Caterers on the front line

The current school meal provision debate has shone a light on the overwhelming criticism many caterers regularly face.  While there have been some unacceptable food parcels, and it is absolutely right that these have been highlighted so changes can be made, it is also vital that the good examples are shared to show the standard we should all be working towards.  

These cooks and caterers will be listening to the radio, watching and reading the news and thinking – ‘no one ever asks us, the catering staff, who actually work in the kitchen, and who know the children, what the solution is’.  These catering professionals get up every morning to do what they love - feeding our children – and often for minimum wage. I have said for many years it’s the only job I know of where you walk in a back door and leave by a back door.

Sam Ward, Lead for Food and Nutrition, Academy for Character & Excellence, heads up a team who provides meals for schools across the South West:

“My catering teams have been working tirelessly to provide the best parcels we can in these extreme circumstances. We have delivered 276 parcels across our Trust to those children in need – and it is these vulnerable children that we cannot lose sight of.

We know our families well and have provided hampers that are allergy specific to those who need them and also tailored parcels for those without cooking facilities.

There is a lot of anger out there, and quite rightly so for the sub-standard parcels. However, we cannot blame the entire school food catering system when there is so much good work going on out there. I do hope that this traction triggers the evident need for change.

It saddens me that the catering industry has taken some of this criticism when they put their heart and soul into the job of feeding our children, with reduced staffing, tight budgets and the ever-present shadow of Covid.”


Pictured: A school meal parcel from Academy for Character & Excellence

The importance of caterers

Throughout my work, it has become ever clearer that we need catering teams to be valued and seen as a professional body. Over the years, the catering service has fragmented: kitchens have closed; standards have not been upheld; reports for change have been written, only to be put on a shelf to gather dust. Many catering staff in schools are still ignored and are not seen as an integral part of the school.

At Food for Life, we have called on Ofsted to include school food within the Inspection Framework, and I wanted, as did many others, a specialist team of cooks and chefs to inform this. Experts who know first-hand how the school meals system works.  This has not happened.

I’ve written based on my experience of doing the job for many years, having seen what a difference it makes when catering teams are valued.  I don’t use big words, as you can see from what I’ve written. I talk to you as a school cook who has been there, literally in the heat of the kitchen.

We want to change the system not just on a whim but for good. So that every child in school gets a hot, wholesome meal every day.

Food for Life will continue to campaign for better Government policy on school food and caterer support to ensure good food for every child is the norm.

We will also continue to work with our caterers to serve excellent quality food, helping them to work with their schools wherever possible. Covid-19 continues to present challenges, yet we are confident that Food for Life and our army of caterers will continue to make a difference to children’s health, one school meal at a time.

Food for Life is a Soil Association programme. Read more about our action plan in the Grow Back Better report, which aims to reinvigorate UK food, farming and land-use post-Covid-19.


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