With no clear idea how to address a downward trend in school meal uptake, we should look to labour-efficient models like those operated in Finland to fund school food, says FCSI education consultant Richard Wedgbury.
The catering service provision to our schools appears to be in a quandary, with little or no idea as to how the downward trend in meal uptake can be arrested.
Pre-Jamie Oliver there was approximately a 43% uptake of secondary school meals, of which 30% was from cash sales and 13% was from free meals.
The latest annual report on school meals produced by LACA, in conjunction with the School Food Trust, shows uptake at 35% for secondary schools, of which 27% is from cash and only 8% from free meals.
It's a similar picture in the primary school sector, although it started from a higher base level of 46% and currently languishes at 39% uptake.
Better food, more focus on the environment in which meals are served and many brains all over the country focusing on this dilemma have all failed to reverse the trend.
Over this same period I have been advocating the more labour-efficient service model employed in Finland. It involves self-help service, an automated self-clear system, much reduced levels of choice and the active involvement of teachers in the dining room to effect proper levels of supervision.
This could deliver labour savings of 66% and a cost per meal of £1.30. Many parents would struggle to produce a packed lunch for this price, and if the Government contributed 30p, it would make the £1 meal a reality.
There is evidence from some of the new academies in London that a return to set meals with limited choice can work. I recently accompanied Prue Leith to Petchey Academy in Hackney and watched as every child and every member of staff sat down for a meal of smoked mackerel biryani, except the vegetarians, who were offered vegetable biryani. The dessert for everyone was fresh fruit salad.
There are other examples of success around the country, invariably because a head teacher got behind the idea and decided to make sure that it worked.
As the Finnish say: "Lunch break at school gives an opportunity for both students and the school staff to refresh themselves and to give a natural rhythm to the working day."