From September 2014, all pupils in reception, year 1 and year 2 will be entitled to a free school meal, but do schools or education caterers fully realise the implications of the new scheme? Arnold Fewell finds out.
In December last year the government announced it would provide universal free school meals (UFSM) for all pupils in reception, year 1 and year 2, beginning in
September 2014. Within the £1b package are measures including £150m to help schools expand their kitchens and dining facilities; £22.5m specifically to help smaller schools; and £2.30 per child per day for each school in revenue funding.
The initiative, deputy prime minster Nick Clegg says, will save parents about £400 a year per child, but concerns have been raised by schools across the country about its practicalities, as many lack kitchens or adequate space. Even Clegg himself has stated that the scheme will face "implementation challenges".
Moreover, UFSM for infants is just one aspect of a wider School Food Plan created by Dimbleby and Vincent and supported by the government to increase the quality of food - and food education - in schools. Neither the opportunities nor the challenges for schools, caterers, suppliers, pupils or parents will
stop with the implementation of the UFSM in September.
Yet for Richard Ware, who heads the direct service organisation (DSO) in Cambridgeshire, this scheme could be the start of a new era: "I believe school meals are entering a golden age, as the government has realised that good-quality, healthy food at school will help children learn," he says.
"Hopefully, this is just the start and the policy will be that all primary school children are entitled to a free meal. This would be a great pledge for the general election."
The financial benefits for schools could be significant, believes Stephen Price, head of the DSO in Southampton. "There are huge opportunities to build a successful business," he says. "It will make primary schools financially viable for the first time. I believe more children will stay for a meal at Key Stage 2, as those parents with two or more children will be able to afford a meal for the older child, as the younger child's meal will be free."
However, the scheme is not without its challenges. "We started planning early for this September as we are worried about the availability and fitting of equipment," Ware explains. "Schools are usually closed in the summer holidays, but we are going to need access to their kitchens for up to six weeks.
I am not convinced the schools fully realise the implications of the new free meals policy and what it will mean to have a lot more young customers at lunchtime."
He's not the only one who's worried. "Without doubt, the key challenge for schools is having both the kitchen and the kit to meet the demands of UFSM," says
Lee Vines, director at kitchen supplier PKL.
"Many schools will need to expand or refurbish their kitchen facilities to meet the government's plans to provide every infant with a healthy, nutritious school lunch from September. Some schools still have no kitchen at all and need to address that."
According to Price, DSOs will also face the additional challenge of increased competition from commercial operators. "Primary schools will become more attractive to the private sector, so DSOs must be well-prepared and have identified their USP - they need to offer schools something different."
In Southampton, after joining up with the DSO in Hampshire and talking to their suppliers early on, the team is well prepared. "We are looking at new ways of working so that we can meet the changing needs of schools," Price says. "This is something the government could learn from. My wish is that the Departments for Health and Education communicated more effectively so that the policies are better co-ordinated."
But despite the inevitable challenges the new scheme will bring, the mood is generally upbeat across the sector. "The focus and funding going into school meals with UFSM will undoubtedly drive up standards and uptake," says a spokesperson for education catering specialist Taylor Shaw.
Robin Mills, managing director of Chartwells, is equally optimistic. "The current school catering market is very exciting. I think there is a real understanding across the board that good-quality, nutritious meals play an essential role in supporting attainment at school."
Of course, it's unlikely that the UFSM scheme will be the sector's silver bullet, as Steve Quinn, general manager at Cucina Restaurants, is keen to emphasise. "There are promising signs that school catering is heading in the right direction, but it will be a long time before we can say it is in a golden age," he says. "There are certainly some pockets of excellence where caterers are serving students a good range of freshly prepared food each day, but it is, unfortunately, far from the norm."
Yet UFSM is just one initiative set to take off in the UK, which will not only give schools new opportunities to engage with young people and ensure they stick with healthy eating habits throughout their education and later life. And these policies will also offer caterers - and the hospitality industry - the chance to develop a future generation of customers, chefs, managers and even education caterers. Let the new era begin.
Additional research by Elly Earls
Arnold Fewell's vision for school meals
In September 2014 schools could see anything between 65% and 85% of Key Stage 1 pupils staying for a free meal. This will then have a knock-on effect in future years for Key Stage 2 and secondary schools. While I do think we are entering a golden era, I also fear many headteachers do not appreciate the full implications of the universal free meal policy, something which could, in turn, cause issues for school caterers.
I also believe school caterers need to interact much more with parents. For example, they could have local ambassadors sharing updates on social media - young mums or parent governors would be perfect for this. These ambassadors need to be recruited straight away to ensure they're talking about the school catering service
and its short-term and long-term benefits in June and July, when parents are making decisions.
Without steps like this, the percentage uptake will be nearer to 65% than the desired 85%, and that missing 20% could be instrumental in making the whole service financially viable for the future.
The School Food Plan
The goals of Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent's School Food Plan are clear and simple: "This plan is about good food and happiness. It is about the pleasures
of growing, cooking and eating proper food.
It is also about improving the academic performance of our children and the health of our nation," the authors state on the first page.
So how will they accomplish it? The plan lays out 10 actions for the government to take and an additional six for the authors and others. The government has already implemented one: put cooking into the curriculum. It will launch the second action in January 2015 when it introduces revised school food standards, which will apply across the whole school day including breakfasts, morning breaks, tuck shops and after school clubs.
The draft school food standards emphasise the importance of variety - whether that is different fruits, vegetables, grains, pulses or types of meat and fish -
as well as advising that, wherever possible, food should be prepared in the school's own kitchen from fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
After that, there's a lot more to come - everything from setting up financially self-sufficient breakfast clubs to training head teachers and setting up flagship boroughs to demonstrate the impact of improving school food on a large scale.
UFSM may seem like a huge upheaval, but really it is only the beginning.