Doomsday' is a pessimistic word to use, but unfortunately necessary in the context. However unlikely the possibility of school food funding ceasing with the end of the School Lunch Grant in March 2011, there is, nonetheless, a chance it will.
With huge pressure on cutting public spending, the next Government will have to find some areas to cut back on. And that, like it or not, could spell doomsday for the past five years of progress with healthy eating in schools.
It's hard to assess the exact fallout should the government cease to provide the School Lunch Grant, but it's safe to say that not all school meal services would survive the cut in funds. Beverley Baker, chairman of the Local Authority Caterers Association, puts the likely outcome most succinctly: "In my view, there would be three main scenarios - parents would have to pay more, schools would have to subsidise more or local authorities would have to contribute more."
All of these, of course, represent difficult challenges, with considerable resistance and debate over where to spend scarce resources inevitable.
"There will undoubtedly be competing demands for the money, which will probably mean that while some schools may flourish, others may well find running a school meals service unaffordable," continues Baker.
"It could spell the end of the service altogether for some, apart from free school meals, or it might mean a reduced food offer, which may simply undo all the hard work implemented by caterers in introducing the new healthier eating regulations to date."
Concern for the more precarious services extends through the industry, and is shared by Simon James, managing director at contract caterer Eden Foodservice.
"It is my personal opinion that if the funding is cut, a number of schools will cease to be able to provide school meals," he says.
"I'm thinking of the local authorities that are reliant on the School Lunch Grant to fund their own direct service organisation, or who are suddenly forced to find, say, another £2m a year. Very quickly, we may have a price that, when contracts go to retender, the clients will say that unless you can knock a few percent off because we no longer have certain funding, there won't be a service."
THE POWER OF HEALTHY FOOD
Within the industry, the response if the grant were cut would be loud, to say the least.
"I would be very disappointed if they took funds from an area that is incredibly important to children," says Craig Fettes, operations director, education, at Elior UK.
"If the Government is concerned with obesity and health problems in later life, how can it possibly underestimate the power of healthy school food from the age of four or five, all the way up to 18?"
It's an opinion shared by Rob Kirby, chef-director at Lexington Catering: "It would be disastrous; we need to invest in the school meal sector and get cooking in schools firmly back on the curriculum," he says.
"It's all very well saying we are up there in Europe on the food and restaurant scene, but if we don't educate and feed our children properly we are completely undermining our future food culture and heritage."
While three years was deemed enough time to see positive results from the School Lunch Grant when it was announced in September 2007 (see panel on page 31), another three years of funding - at least - is necessary, according to James.
"I think it would be incredibly unfortunate that having put in so much hard work, and the Government having committed so much funding to date, that it could effectively force the destruction of the service by not continuing to increase the meal numbers until it becomes self-sustaining," he says.
THE BRIGHT SIDE
Looking on the bright side though, a consultation released by the Government a fortnight ago gave the biggest hint yet that school food funding would continue. In it, examples given of grants that might be given to schools included one on food.
"It seems that within the current Government there is still value being placed on school lunch. It's good news and it is still on the agenda," says Rob Rees, chairman of the School Food Trust. "What we don't know is how exactly [the Government] is managing the process of working out the new grants."
There are also hints that new grants might not be ring-fenced like the School Lunch Grant, allowing schools to spend extra money as they choose. "There will be some head teachers who, if the grant isn't ring-fenced, will say it is absolutely the right thing to do to spend it on school food," Rees adds.
"Others will have to be convinced that this will bring about positive results and a healthier population - and we have the evidence for that now. A survey of primary schools out last month showed that schoolchildren are now eating two of their five fruit and veg a day in a school environment."
Rees is reluctant to acknowledge the worst-case scenario of funding being scrapped. "When I came into this job as chair in February I was quite optimistic about the future," he says. "Across the public sector we've all had to adjust. But where we've come from in the last four years is amazing. I think we should be optimistic and I don't think a doomsday scenario will ever exist."
Nothing, however, is guaranteed - it would be wrong to rest on our laurels after the first bit of positive news. And despite positive murmurings to Rees from other political parties, a shift in Government could still bring about change. Contingency plans, therefore, are still worth considering. Were the worst-case scenario to happen, and the School Lunch Grant scrapped, caterers would have to find a way to continue providing healthy food for children, says Jane Bristow, managing director at Sodexo Education.
"Great strides have been made in helping to educate children about their food, so the real worry is that the consequential effect of drastic cuts could be the slowing of this process," she says. "Schools will be facing pressure on a number of fronts and it would be up to companies like ours to see how we can work closely with them to tackle any issues collectively. All schools are funded very differently, so we would need to assess each one on an individual basis."
Fettes says that, were funding to be scrapped, Elior would have to look at new ways of working with schools. "I think we could certainly still find space to help if there was no provision for school meals. We could provide, say, a healthy lunchbox for parents too busy to provide one themselves. Obviously though, as a company, our costs would have to be met somewhere, and how to provide that at a low cost - there's no easy answer there."
In fact, should school meal funding be discontinued, there will be few easy answers anywhere. Among the innumerable questions: How will some schools continue to provide healthy meals? How will we continue to educate children about the benefits of healthy eating and gain ground in the battle against obesity? And how is it now possible to build on the good work of the last five years?
As James says: "We took 20 years to destroy school meals in this country, and we're finally starting to turn it around. We made the commitment to change things and we have to stick with it until we've finished the job."
SCHOOL MEALS: A TIMELINE
The first episode of Jamie's School Dinners airs on Channel 4. Appalled by the culture of turkey twizzlers and junk food in school canteens, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver launches a campaign to improve school food.
Oliver delivers a petition, signed by 271,677 people, to 10 Downing Street, calling for an improvement to school meals. In response, the government sets up the School Food Trust, with £15m of funding from the then Department for Education and Skills.
The government pledges £280m over three years, which must be spent by schools exclusively on improving their food. Some £220m will go on improving ingredients and targeting areas with the poorest services. The other £60m is for a School Food Trust to advise schools - and parents - on providing healthier meals.
The School Lunch Grant is announced, pledging a further £220m to help schools improve lunch uptake, specifically by helping to keep down the price of meals.
The ring-fenced grant could be used in one of four ways - to pay for ingredients for school lunches, to pay labour costs of catering staff, to buy small pieces of equipment, or to pay for nutrient analysis software and the expertise to operate it. The grant was to run until March 2011, which, it was announced at the time, "should give authorities and schools ample time to manage any price increases resulting from the changes required by the new standards".
Caterer launches its School Meals Matter campaign to gain a commitment from the incoming Government to support the school meals service and continue investment in the wellbeing of the nation's children.