This week's Government spending review is expected to cut education budgets by up to 20%. So where does that leave school meals? Janie Stamford reports.
When LACA teamed up with Caterer to launch the School Meals Matter campaign ahead of the 2010 general election, our stated aim was to call on the government-elect to make a firm commitment to the continuation of the school meals service.
Five months after the Lib-Con coalition took office, no such commitment has been forthcoming. The School Lunch Grant in its current, ring-fenced guise, is still scheduled to cease in March 2011; plans by the Labour government to extend a free school meals pilot have been shelved; and Health Secretary Andrew Lansley publicly criticised efforts to improve school food with a suggestion that they had failed.
When Caterer editor Mark Lewis and Beverley Baker, former LACA chair, delivered 4,400 signed petition letters to the Department of Education in July, it sent a clear signal to Westminster that there exists a firm belief that school meals are good for the health of the nation and good for the hospitality industry. And the feeling is still strong as signed petition forms continue to arrive at Caterer every week.
School meals are good for the nation because they support children in achieving their full physical and mental potential, and help drive down the cost to the NHS of diet-related illness. And they are good for the industry because they encourage children to engage with food and cooking, and thereby seed future generations of hospitality workers and customers.
It's well-known that our nation's health is deteriorating, thanks in no small part to our diets. According to Baker, there is also recognition that school meals have a place in improving attainment and improving health, both now and in the future.
"My sense is that Government does understand. But there are still question marks over whether they will pay for it," she says.
The UK is in the throes of fighting a colossal budget deficit, the likes of which has never before been seen. A variety of spending cuts have already taken place - the School Food Trust saw its marketing budget halved in May before its public funding was withdrawn altogether in the Government's quango cull last week. It has pledged to continue its efforts to increase school meal uptake in England as a charity and will also set up a complementary Community Interest Company by April 2011 in order to achieve greater commercial flexibility to support its work.
However, the age of austerity is expected to truly begin in earnest after this week's Government spending review. There have been some clues as to where the axe will fall and it's clear that education is by no means exempt with cuts of between 10% and 20% expected. Despite this, there have been suggestions that the School Lunch Grant may continue as part of the Dedicated Schools Grant.
A move like this, while not entirely unwelcome, would most likely be met with concern that cash-strapped schools might not use the money as intended to support the school meal.
But with the number of head teachers fully engaged with the healthy school food agenda on the increase, this is perhaps not the worst case scenario. A complete withdrawal of funding for school food could see services reduced to only providing packed lunches - there is no obligation to provide hot meals for those entitled to free school food.
However, until Chancellor George Osborne outlines his plans one way or the other, school caterers will continue to provide healthy and nutritious lunches - as they will after their fate is sealed.