The rapidly increasing cost of school meals is down to more than just food inflation, school meal campaigners have warned.
Their reaction comes after research showed that the average cost of a school meal had risen 10% this year. A survey of 80 UK local education authorities (LEAs) found that many had been forced to increase prices by as much as 16%, taking the average cost of a school dinner to almost £2, according to the Independent on Sunday.
Price rises have been linked to a two-year high in food inflation (see page 15), but the School Food Trust (SFT) said that while food prices might quickly change at the supermarket it was too soon for schools to feel the effect.
"The changing costs of food are part of school caterers' planning and negotiations with their suppliers every year," said Linda Smith, director of delivery for the SFT. "Changes to school meal prices are rarely just about food costs: caterers also need to consider the impact of wage increases, fuel prices and other overheads."
Lindsay Graham, director of LGL, which advises on food, health and obesity, agreed, pointing out that the increasing and costly pressure to source sustainably and locally, staff training, kitchen upgrades and marketing all played their part.
"Someone has to pay and if it isn't government then it falls to the consumers," she added.
The survey results have caused school food advocates to voice concerns that poorer families will be priced out of the market.
Sandra Russell, chair of the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA) said that increased prices always ran the risk of negatively impacting school meal take-up - a fear supported by research undertaken by the London School of Economics on behalf of the SFT. It found that for a 10% increase in the price of school meals, a fall in take-up of between 7% and 10% could be expected.
While funding to support school meals services continues to be available, the School Lunch Grant lost its ring-fence last year when the coalition Government opted to include the cash as part of the expanded baseline budget for schools.
Arnold Fewell, managing director of AVF Marketing, said that prices and uptake would always be a very careful balancing act for school catering and too often political issues came into play.
"There is no one solution to fit each authority but I do believe in a marketing-led approach rather than just a financial one," he said.
LinkedIn's "We work in the school meals industry" group discussion
Current costs are probably based on a 35-38% uptake but higher usage would mean that the costs could be cheaper for all. There are a lot of long-term fixed costs that are under-utilised currently, so more effective cost recovery would be possible with cheaper unit prices.
Peter Hindlay, director, Auric Advantage
We cannot subsidise school meals forever but there may now be a case for a review of free school meals. Perhaps we should look to the US, where they have a different approach: free, part paid and paid. Given rising living costs, we really must explore avenues to help those who need school meals the most.
Lindsay Graham director, LGL
Why are meal prices so variable - from, say, £1.50 to over £2.20? There is obviously a lot of political pressure but costs should be broadly similar for food and wages.
Arnold Fewell, managing director of AVF Marketing
By Janie Stamford
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