Modernising school meals

Ernie Dewhirst, managing director of Evolve 4, offers his thoughts on the benefits of providing children with a hot meal, driving down waste, and more

Following the news that Cheshire East Council is to spend almost £9,000 to review school meal losses of £95,000, changes are needed by government to support schools. As many are aware, the war in Ukraine has worsened an already beleaguered supply chain, causing food prices to soar. The conflict has had an impact on the food industry, particularly the production of fertiliser, wheat and vegetable oils due to the large quantities of these goods being produced in Ukraine and Russia.

Of course, food price hikes are putting organisations under an enormous amount of pressure and have left them burdened with seemingly ever-rising costs, so there is an understandable sense of concern among caterers as we enter the new academic year.

This, of course, has a knock-on effect in the school kitchen. Caterers are facing huge challenges at every turn when it comes to operating a school meal service with staff shortages and high vacancy rates, coupled with a shortage of drivers, all making things in the sector difficult. To compound this, food inflation means that many school caterers are having to compromise on the quantity and quality of the meals they serve to pupils, which is a concern given the obvious importance of giving young children a healthy and well-portioned meal.

Many school meal providers have already admitted that they’re worried they’ll simply be unable to meet the basic legally mandated food requirements, which could mean a rise in the cost per school meal and possibly lead to parents being priced out. However, modernising the school meals system through the introduction of advance ordering can mitigate the impact of price rises. Caterers will be able to manage costs as they will have prior information on the ingredients required for the week which, in turn, should ensure that parents will be able to afford meals for their children.


Government support needed

As well as modernising the school catering system, the government has got to do more to support the catering industry. Back in May, catering giant BidFood warned former Prime Minister Boris Johnson that school meals will shrink without help to tackle the rising costs and it’s a warning they’ve repeated to his successor, Liz Truss. The only measure taken so far to ease the pressure on caterers has been to increase infant free school meal funding by 7p, but this is inadequate on two counts: firstly, it falls short of inflation; and, secondly, this increase only applies to reception pupils.

Ultimately, the government must provide more money to help cover the charge per meal cost of free school meals to reduce the burdens on councils, schools and caterers and prevent parents from being priced out of school meals.

The importance of school meals

It’s crucial that students have access to quality and well-portioned lunch as research has shown that it will significantly improve educational performances. A hot, nutritious school meal at lunchtime can help improve a child’s satiety and energy levels in the afternoon, which will help them to take in key learnings and prevent rumbling stomachs from becoming an unwelcome distraction. This could lead to long-term benefits and, with wider access to school meals, we will likely see a boost to academic outcomes across the board.

Not only will it improve performance in the classroom, but it’s important to remember that, for many pupils, this will be the only means by which they receive a nutritious meal during the day and, sadly, for some it could be their only meal of the day. Reducing quality and quantity of school meals will have a devastating impact on their health and could lead to large numbers of children across the country becoming malnourished. So, while costs rise, it’s vital that school meal standards are not diminished, which is why further government intervention and modernisation is needed.

Pre-selection: a modernising solution

This is where pre-selection of meals comes in. Lunchtimes in schools can often be chaotic and are becoming even more costly for schools and councils. With pre-selection of meals in place, school kitchens can operate far more efficiently. The service allows for parents and children to choose their lunchtime meals in advance and, ultimately, provide more choice.

Choosing meals in advance also reduces waste as children with a choice are more likely to eat the meals they select and caterers can order ingredients in advance, which allows for less waste and therefore more choice. An increase in school meal uptake also helps to reduce cost per meal for schools. All of this can help bring about greater efficiency in school kitchens and, with the right system, schools and councils can significantly reduce their losses and operate in a much more financially sustainable way.

There’s no doubt that we are living in exceptional times for the food (and many other) industries, but with a system of this kind in place, an uptake in school meals is likely to be achieved, and this will, naturally, help to alleviate the losses caused by rising prices.

Of course, this is not a magic wand; it has to be coupled with further government support so that losses can be mitigated. However, what it will do is provide a significant saving which should prevent schools and councils from having to raise prices, meaning that parents won’t suffer from being unable to afford school meals.

You might also like: Navigating spiralling costs in the school kitchen

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