School meals don’t always have the best reputation. The stereotype is often soggy peas, mushy chips, and some kind of unidentifiable grey meat. However, in many European countries school meals are reputed to be tasty, healthy, and wholesome. A typical Italian school meal of fresh pasta, fish, two kinds of salad, rocket and caprese, a bread roll and grapes certainly sounds much more appetising than the canned sausages and baked beans that British students chow down on.
What is common in most countries, however, is that school meals are not free. Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, and Estonia are rare exceptions, providing free school meals to all pupils in compulsory education, regardless of their parents’ income. But is it time for more countries to follow their example?
Britain (infamous for its soggy peas) re-introduced free school meals in 2014, albeit only for younger children. So, what has been the experience of the UK’s policy of free school meals for infants? Has it been a success, especially in terms of getting children to eat more healthily? Or has it been a vanity project for the government and a complete waste of money?
We had a comment from Nando, who points out that many schools lack the funding to provide things like healthy meals (though he wants to see much greater government investment in education to counteract this).
Certainly, when the UK introduced its free school meals policy it was discovered that thousands of schools lacked suitable kitchen facilities, forcing them to invest money in everything from a new microwave or dishwasher, to a complete refurbishment. In addition, the British government has been accused of “quietly” dropping additional funding for smaller schools, leaving them with an additional burden.
We recently spoke to Myles Bremner, former National Director for the School Food Plan, a national plan published by the UK Department for Education in 2013 that formed the basis of the current free school meals policy. How would he respond to Nando’s comment?
When the policy was announced, it was recognised early on that schools needed help with improving their kitchen facilities and dining room infrastructure. Over the year that schools had to get ready, over £20 million in capital funding was provided by the Department for Education to improve kitchen and dining infrastructure.
There are still some schools – too many, sadly – that do not have a school kitchen, and those schools rely on transported meals. It is the intention and desire, where it is economically feasible, to have a production kitchen, because if you prepare food on-site then the quality of the food is better, and the connection to food is stronger for the students.
Regarding the second part of the question, the government made the decision to allocate £2.30 for each meal served in the Universal Infant Free School Meals. For most schools, nearly all schools, £2.30 is a fair price. For some of the smaller schools, however, particularly where under 100 students are served a day, the economy of school meals can make it hard to break even at £2.30 per meal. The School Food Plan recognised that those schools should receive an extra subsidy, and for 2 years, the government did provide that. However, since last September, there is indeed an extra burden.
We had a comment from Vinko, who strongly believed that schools were responsible for keeping young people fit and healthy. But does this apply only to younger students, or to all students?
Another common criticism of the UK’s Universal Infant Free School Meals policy is that it is only for the youngest children, up to age 7. Should it be expanded to include all primary school students, up to age 11?
When the School Food Plan was published in July 2013, it was the intention that free school meals should be made available to all primary school children, i.e. aged 5 to 11. The UK government announced the infant schools policy as a first step towards the roll-out, but as yet have made no plans as to when the policy will be rolled out to more children.
Since the publication of the School Food Plan, the authors, and many other people in the food sector, believe it should be rolled out to all children, as in Sweden and Finland, because the benefits to health and well-being are proven, and [universal school meals] can help tackle the obesity and poor health crisis.
Finally, we had a comment from Mariana, who questioned whether it was really the government’s job to be providing healthy meals to children. Isn’t it up to parents to feed their children healthy food?
Schools have a statuary responsibility to look after children, and my personal view, strongly held, is that as well as educating children in academia, schools have an important role in looking after children’s well-being.
Some schools do apply standards to packed lunches, and insist that if students do want to bring a packed lunch to school then it must be healthy. However, the truth is that only 1% of packed lunches meet nutritional standards. Too often, they contain crisps, fizzy drinks, sweets, and not much else.
Lunchtime is in the middle of the school day, so it makes sense that schools should also be made responsible for the health of children at that time. I believe the government should encourage all schools to make the decision that school meals should be the only food made available.
So, in answer to the question, the solution is for schools and parents to work together to improve the health of students. But, ultimately, the responsibility for children’s health should lie with schools during school hours.
Should school meals be free? Do schools have a responsibility to provide healthy meals to children? Or should it be up to parents? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!