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School meals – nutrition or education?

With pressure on all Government spending, school meals are struggling to fight for what limited resources are available. We put two industry heavyweights head-to-head to argue for and against their provision.

Beverley Baker, chair of the Local Authorities Catering Association

LACA chairman
LACA chairman
In order to appreciate where we are with school meals today, it is perhaps important to clarify why school meals first came into existence and how the service has evolved since those early days.

Ironically, it was concerns over the levels of under-nutrition at the beginning of the 20th century that prompted the introduction of school meals as a social welfare service for all children in 1906. This was also based on the premise that children would be more receptive and perform better in class if they were not hungry.

Over the years the true focus on school meals as a welfare service has been lost as a result of a succession of Government reforms. The Education Act of 1980 deregulated the service and local authorities were required to provide free school meals only to those children who were entitled; they could charge whatever price they felt appropriate for school meals for paying pupils, and there was no requirement to meet any nutritional standard.

Some authorities scrapped their school catering service altogether and many school kitchens were turned into classrooms. This transformed school meals from a "health and welfare" service into a commercially competitive operation and pupils then became customers.

Deregulation in the 1980s meant no nutritional standards and menus could be adapted to reflect society's move towards a fast-food culture. It also spawned a multi-choice catering operation which meant that cash cafeteria and multi-choice menus became the norm in secondary schools, the style of service that continues to this day.

With various other acts and policies to follow, the school meals service became even more commercialised, fragmented and under-funded. However, the wider perception of school meals as a welfare service persisted - only minus the necessary funding to meet the growing expectations for higher-quality, freshly prepared food.

Jamie Oliver kick-started a welcomed revolution which brought about a much-needed injection of Government cash but we were then catapulted into trying to "undo" 20 years of neglect and under-funding as well as a culture fixed on fast food.

The new Nutritional Standards introduced by the present Government in 2006 through to 2009, have been stringent and fast. They brought about restrictions on the types of food and beverages that can be offered in schools as well as new healthier menus. This initially resulted in uptake dropping, but we are now beginning to turn the corner and numbers are increasing. We do not want to reverse all this hard work and lose the momentum now.

Unlike past experiences of school meals, children and young people today expect choice and variety in the food on offer in schools to reflect what they experience in the high street. Otherwise they bring in packed lunches or, in the case of secondary students, they vote with their feet and head to fast-food outlets at lunchtimes.

Although many parents strive to prepare a "healthy" packed lunch, caterers' experience of lunch box contents is that the reverse is often the case. Indeed, recent research by Leeds University has shown that only 1% of primary children's packed lunches met the Nutritional Standards set for school meals in England and over 25% of the packed lunches contained sweets, snacks and sugary drinks.

Parents, quite rightly, should be responsible for their own children. But we must bear in mind that - with cookery skills having dropped off the curriculum - we now have two generations of parents who do not know how to cook, whose homes do not feature family mealtimes, who don't buy fresh ingredients when pre-prepared dishes are easier and quicker and who are generally unaware of nutritional issues.

None of us can, however, pass the buck when it comes to obesity. As a society, we got ourselves into this mess and it is our collective responsibility to help sort it out. School meals did not create the obesity epidemic, but schools and school meals have an important contribution to make to alter eating habits for the better.

Schools are the seat of learning and as such, have a role to play in educating children about diet. Experiencing a school lunch should be seen as the "ninth lesson" of the day both in terms of establishing nutritional awareness and instilling social skills. School meals, as part of the education system, should most certainly be seen as an essential local authority service.

With more than one in five of the population designated as below the poverty line, free school meals are vital for children's health. Much work is now being done to overcome stigma issues such as introducing cashless payment schemes for all paying and non-paying pupils and increasing the eligibility level so that more families on the threshold can benefit.

Caterers are not suggesting free school meals should be provided for all pupils, only for those who need them most. We also believe in a sufficiently funded and affordable school meals service for all parents, so that what children eat at school represents a step on the road to improving their health, reducing obesity and, in the long term, decreasing NHS costs, and the national debt.

Surely that's a goal worth supporting.

Peter Hancock, chief executive, Pride of Britain Hotels

Do school meals matter? Let me start by admitting my views on this subject carry no authority whatsoever and I do not expect to influence anybody; rather to be the agent provocateur in a debate that is of some importance to children, parents and caterers alike.

My own memory of school lunches, always referred to as "dinners" for some reason, is not a happy one. My parents generously paid good money to send me as a day-boy to a prep school in Sussex where the in-house lunch was compulsory. In fact, you had to stay at the table until you had finished your revolting stew, cold rice pudding or worse, no matter how distressing the experience became. I missed several afternoon lessons because of this and would have gladly foregone all pocket money to be allowed a packed lunch or no lunch at all.

I didn't wish to inflict the same fate on my own children, so both our daughters have survived years of education with an inexpensive daily packed lunch, prepared by them, that included such things as sandwiches, fruit, yogurt, carrot sticks and some small treat. The option to have school lunches was always available to them but they preferred the conviviality of joining their friends away from the main hall. They are both slim, bright and full of energy.

Even with the improvements initiated by Jamie Oliver and others, school meals take-up is far from universal now.

The argument goes that a hot meal at school, for some children, is the only healthy meal they get. This is tragic and highlights an ever-growing consensus that children are somehow the responsibility of the Government, the local council and the teachers - anyone but the consenting adults who chose to become parents. We rightly condemn people who fail to adequately feed and care for their pets; surely the same logic applies to their own flesh and blood?

Another factor here is nutrition. I read that one child in every four today is categorised as "obese". If the present system has allowed this to happen, does it really make sense to campaign for its continuation? Of course, we want young people to learn about good nutrition and this can be incorporated into lessons. Yes, in an ideal world it will include the provision of food itself, but how - and this is my final point - can the country afford it?

We face a national debt of monstrous proportions. The Government is borrowing £600m a day and local authorities will bear some of the pain when the next parliament tries belatedly to control public spending. This could mean an end to all but the most essential services and some might say that every penny allocated to education must be spent on education itself, which is essential to the country.

However desirable, the provision of meals within schools can't be described as essential, since the service is offered at subsidised rates to every child irrespective of the family's income. I know that free meals are available to the least well-off, though this has its drawbacks, too, because of the stigma attached to claiming them.

There's an old saying that "there's no such thing as a free lunch". In this case it is a sad reality.

School Meals Matter - Sign the petition now!

Who are you behind? Do you think school meals should continue to be supported or are there more worthy ways for the Government to use limited resources?Tell us what you think on Table Talk.

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Jacobs Media Group is honoured to be the recipient of the 2020 Queen's Award for Enterprise.

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