As the school meals sector struggles to find its feet after decades of underinvestment and the seismic shift triggered by Jamie Oliver, Tom Bill asks five industry experts some difficult questions about its future
Has the "choice" approach to school meals failed? As uptake is the key to a sustainable future, should the Government imitate successful models in Scandinavia and make meals compulsory?
Simon James, managing director, Eden Foodservice
"The Government could make school meals compulsory if it wished. The argument that schools have insufficient dining room space or seating is a fallacy. If the commitment was there, schools could timetable different age group sittings in order to accommodate all pupils eating in a dining room. It would be cheaper to invest in providing school meals for all pupils now and avoid the spiralling costs of treating obesity and diabetes in future years."
School food spokesman, Department for Education and Skills (DfES)
"Not at all. Many schools have actually increased uptake since introducing healthy meals. We feel parents should be able to decide if they want to send their child to school with a packed lunch, but urge them to work with the school to ensure that their contents don't undermine the school's food standards."
Tim Cookson, chairman, Litmus Partnership consultancy
"It's too late to take a backward step. The infrastructure needed to support a compulsory service has dissipated - along with the required skill base. There's no longer the ‘take it or leave it' option - dietary, religious and ethical are three reasons why one size doesn't fit all."
Jackie Schneider, Merton Parents for Better Food, London
"There should be no question of children being able to choose to eat a poor quality diet. Most kids don't choose to go to school - they get taken or sent by parents."
Irene Carroll, chair of the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA)
"No, choice hasn't failed. LACA has always said that the removal of choice altogether is not the answer. Limiting choice has to be accompanied by greater nutritional education and an aim to win over minds and bodies with common sense."
Some say the school meals service is no longer sustainable and that government/private contractors are washing their hands of it. Is it time to abandon it altogether?
SJ "British children have the third-highest levels of childhood obesity in the world. Now is not the time to abandon the service when there's valuable evidence of why it should be extended to all. Private contractors and local authorities are finding funding the service challenging as costs and quality have risen and customer numbers decreased."
DfES "Not true at all. We've invested £460m to subsidise ingredients until 2011 to help schools through the transitional period. There's no reason why costs should increase significantly, and many schools are producing healthy meals for very little additional cost."
TC "The current dynamics suggest school meals services will be difficult to sustain, other than in isolated locations where pupil numbers and associated school policy allow the capture of sufficient trade. Where pupil numbers are low, a real determination to succeed must exist within the management and governance of a school."
JS "Abandoning the school meals service is tantamount to schools failing in their duty of care. Packed lunches are repeatedly shown to be poor quality and low on fruit and veg. If the state is going to insist that children go to school, then the state has a responsibility to ensure they're well-fed. The failure of the privatisation of the school meals service is no reason to abandon it now. I still think private companies can make a profit out of providing good quality, tasty school meals."
IC "No, we're in the middle of a transition process and we must expect some turbulence when making such radical changes. We cannot abandon the service altogether because we still have a duty to provide free school meals."
How can one meal per day improve a child's diet, when they may be eating a choc ice for breakfast and a burger for dinner?
SJ "It's a start, but why limit school meals to just lunch? Many schools have recognised their pupils don't eat breakfast before arriving each day, and have established breakfast clubs. There's clear evidence that pupils who eat breakfast are less lethargic and have significantly improved concentration levels."
DfES "This is not a reason to do nothing. On the contrary, it makes it more important that children eat well at school. Clearly healthy eating is about more than just lunches, but we're determined that schools should do their bit to provide healthy food. The new standards will also help to encourage a taste for healthy food from a young age that can stay with children throughout their lives."
TC "It can't. However, it can start the slow, ongoing process of changing mind-sets around sensible eating - which is a much better phrase than ‘healthy eating'. Educating a child in this respect must start at preschool age. It's where the Government can help the most, and where it will gain greater success for its efforts."
JS "This country is on the brink of an epidemic of health problems directly related to poor diet. One in three teenagers is too fat to join the Army, and there's an explosion of diabetes among the young. Schools have a real opportunity to change this. If we can get the school meal right then we can demonstrate that healthy food needn't be dull or bland, and actually get kids to change their habits."
IC "For many children a school meal is the only meal of the day, so it has an important contribution to make. Understanding the importance of diet and the role of school lunch within this context is part of the education process for children and is integral to the initiatives being undertaken."
Do we need to revert to a nanny state for children? Is it time for the Government to make schools lock the gates at lunchtime, for example?
SJ "If the Government's desire to improve the health of young children is to have any effect, then schools will have to become involved and lock their gates at lunchtimes, but more importantly, supervise what children bring to school in their lunchboxes. If nursery schools can successfully ban children from bringing biscuits and snack items for mid-morning break, replacing them with fruit, then why can't primary and secondary schools follow suit?"
DfES "This is rightly a decision for heads to take."
TC "And the net result? Probably busier corner shops before school and after. Would ‘escapees' have to eat a double portion of parsnips if caught? Sensible eating can't be forced. The packed lunch will win the day if the offer isn't what is desired by pupils."
JS "Absolutely. But every parent needs to check that the nanny they have employed is more Mary Poppins than Cruella De Vil. Before children are locked in, I would expect schools to ensure that they have a space in the dining room for every child, that queuing times are reasonable, and that there's enough food to serve every child."
IC "There should be some tightening of rules and restrictions but not a total iron rule which is counterproductive and just incites rebellion. LACA believes that children should be expected to stay on school premises throughout the school day for safety reasons as much as anything else, and that the same rules on the consumption of food and drink provided by the school also apply to those bringing food and drink from home. Otherwise the educational messages are completely undermined."
Give one practical measure that would make school meals better in the UK
SJ "The Government and DfES must now have the conviction to complete what they set out to do, by making school meals mandatory or alternatively ensure that children don't bring to school confectionery, snack items with high fat and salt content, or sugary carbonated drinks, and deny them access to these things during the day."
DfES "Better training for school cooks - we're making this a reality."
TC "Centrally produced - and sponsored - lunchtime picnics distributed on a ‘hub and spoke' basis, ordered through web technology and provided with guaranteed minimum nutritional values and other ‘brain-food' benefits. This would cater for children on welfare and allow other parents to give their kids a nutritional meal at lunchtime without having to get up early to make it."
JS "Insist that every head teacher, governor, local councillor and education minister is forced to eat a school meal every day in the same conditions as the children. Failing that, give caterers time, space, facilities and pay necessary to put decent food on the table."
IC "Free school meals for all."