Please Sir, We Want Some More

Head teachers are facing a dilemma when deciding how to spend dwindling school budgets. Will this mean cuts to school meals and the return of the dreaded Turkey Twizzler? David Burrows and Nick Hughes investigate.


Ever since an outraged Jamie Oliver brought the infamous turkey twizzler to the attention of the nation in 2005, school meals have been an emotive subject for the British electorate. His revelations caused a sensation every bit as groundshaking as when another Oliver (twist) demanded more gruel from Beadle Bumble 170 years previously.


It’s no exaggeration to say that the modern Oliver’s intervention marked a sea change in attitudes towards the quality of school dinners. Following his campaign, minimum nutritional standards were quickly introduced and non-governmental bodies were established to ensure that schools were meeting these standards. Charities such as the Food For Life Partnership (FFLP) meanwhile, have taken the agenda a step forward, encouraging schools to take a holistic approach to food by embedding a culture of healthy, sustainable eating from farm to fork.


It’s widely acknowledged that these combined efforts have led to a significant increase in standards of school meals. An independent evaluation of FFLP’s work, by a team from the University of the West of England (UWE) and Cardiff University, provided ‘hard evidence’ that schools were rated more highly by inspectors after taking part in the FFLP programme. It also showed that pupils’ interest in healthy and sustainable foods was having a ‘nudge effect’ on their eating habits and their parents’ shopping habits. FFLP has helped over 2,800 schools to grow, cook and learn about healthy, sustainable food.


But times have changed. In the Government’s spending review last October, the School Food Trust, the body set up to spearhead school dinner reform, had its funding slashed and its status as a non- governmental body removed. It has now set up as a community interest company and will rely on commercial partners for much of its funding moving forward.


Meanwhile, the FFLP faces losing its lottery funding at the end of the year. Libby Grundy, FFLP director, says the uncertainty hanging over the programme and cuts to local authority school budgets could undo all the good work to date. Professor Kevin Morgan, from Cardiff University, agrees, suggesting that ending the scheme because of the current short-term emphasis on cost cutting would have a “negative long-term impact on public health and the public purse”.


But will all this really fuel the obesity crisis or is healthy eating sufficiently systemic in British schools for standards to be maintained regardless of finances?


The decentralised model of funding for school meals makes it difficult to lay any blame for a fall in standards directly at the door of national policy makers. On average, local councils are expected to make cuts of 20 per cent by 2014 but how they choose to make those cuts is largely up to them. Southwark Council, for instance, recently announced that it planned to provide free school meals for all primary school children in the London borough. The Council’s cabinet member for children’s services Catherine McDonald says that a policy of free, healthy meals “can make a significant difference to children’s lives, education and futures and will be a key way to reduce childhood obesity”.


But Southwark’s approach, while admirable, is the exception rather than the rule. School funding is increasingly divorced from the host local authority, especially at a secondary level, with funding mainly devolved to schools themselves. In its spending review, the government announced a 0.1 per cent real-time rise in funding for education, a move that on the surface implied that schools would be spared from the menace of budget cuts. But since then the official CPI rate of inflation has risen by almost 1.5 per cent, meaning funding has decreased in real terms. When you consider that food price inflation is running at over 5 per cent, it is evident that the money schools have put aside for school meals is no longer worth what it was six months ago. The School Lunch Grant, meanwhile, although retained, is no longer ring fenced, so schools that choose to spend the money in other areas can do so freely.


Judy Hargadon, chief executive of the School Food Trust, urges schools to resist the temptation to funnel this resource out of school meals. “The School Lunch Grant has played a really important role in the transformation of school meals in the last five years and is still there in schools’ budgets so it’s vital that they continue to invest in good food for children,” she says.


However, Christine Haigh, campaign coordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign, says that while the schools that are doing “great things” will continue to do great things others may not see school meals as a priority area, resulting in potentially massive inequalities in the national provision of healthy meals. “There are some who don’t see it is a priority and they’re the places where the money is likely to be siphoned off to other things,” says Haigh. “So the Government will say we’re not cutting that money but the reality is that there may be less money going into school meals.”


As things stand, children whose parents are on income support or jobseekers allowance benefit from free school meals. Pre-election, the Labour party had promised to widen entitlement to free school meals to more low-income families, including pilot schemes to give all primary school children free meals in certain areas. The new Government, however, opted not to proceed with the pilot schemes and under the shake-up of the Welfare reform Plan will have to alter the parameters of free school meal eligibility. Free schools and academies, meanwhile, will be run independently of government and will have no obligation to even meet current nutritional standards.


Although Haigh stops short of saying that government cuts will have a direct, negative impact on obesity, she suggests the indirect impacts of cuts could set back progress on take up of healthy school meals. “In families where perhaps one parent has lost their job, one of the things that is likely to get cut is spending on school dinners because you can make a cheap and not especially healthy packed lunch cheaper than you can buy a healthy school lunch. Unfortunately that kind of thing can also have an impact on take up, which is going to mean that the overhead the caterers have, is shared between fewer children so the effect is going to be rising prices for the food.”


It will be a fine balancing act for caterers – there is no doubt they will be under increasing pressure to deliver to the same nutritional standards at lower cost. Last November, the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA) ran a ‘state of the nation’ event to discuss the challenges they face as public spending is slashed. Sandra Russell, LACA chair, said at the time that she was fearful of cuts that would see head teachers facing an “educational versus health lottery” when it comes to deciding where school budgets are spent. “We face tough challenges at the frontline of school meal provision but the first priority, for all of us, must be to maintain our focus on safeguarding the future health and wellbeing of our children and young people,” she said.


Caterers are up to the challenge, as Nestlé Professional business development chef, Justin Clarke, explains: “School caterers will be looking at ways of making the nutritional standards work. They will do this in many different ways, some may opt for sourcing cheaper products and ingredients or they may opt out of authority responsibility and handle catering directly. The main point is that school cooks are likely to ‘buy better’ and this could mean looking at cheaper alternatives, coley versus cod for instance.”


As such, he adds, the cuts do not necessarily correlate with obesity as nutritional standards will still be met and children will be offered a nutritionally balanced diet. James Armitage, Brakes marketing director, agrees. “Tighter budgets shouldn’t prevent the provision of balanced meals. We are working closely with our customers to help them respond positively to budgetary changes.”


Some are going further, looking to expand beyond nutritional guidelines, providing more environmentally and ethically sustainable menus. The LACA says there is certainly more local produce, and indeed organic produce, on today’s school menus. However, for some that step towards, for instance, organic food is “financially difficult to achieve”, says Russell. “There is always more you can do, but caterers have to balance sustainability and price.”


Some say, the drive for more sustainable food in schools is flagging due to a lack of government leadership or intervention. When it comes to environmental and ethical sustainability, there are no legal requirements for any school. In fact, the issue is not even on the Government’s agenda. In June, the Department for Environment, Food and rural Affairs (Defra) announced new standards for all the food bought by government departments and their agencies (including the military and prisons). The buying requirements, which come into force for new catering contracts from September, demand that all food should be produced to UK or equivalent production standards where this does not increase overall costs; more food must be produced to higher environmental standards; and that fresh produce should be seasonal. All fish will also come from “sustainable sources”.


Food Minister Jim Paice said this is the delivery of a government promise to “ensure that we do not use taxpayers’ money to undermine our own farmers’ high standards of production. By doing so, we’re practising what we preach and challenging the rest of the public sector to follow”. Why, then, were the standards not extended to schools?


Defra couldn’t provide a specific answer, but the Government is known to want to take the lead and let others follow voluntarily. Sustain argue that environmental and ethical standards are “urgently needed” for schools, however. “There is no reason why the Government shouldn’t strip away the environmental and ethical standards and apply them to schools,” says Alex Jackson from Sustain’s Good Food for our Money campaign, a coalition of 60 health, environmental and animal welfare organisations campaigning for mandatory health and sustainability standards for public sector food. “Environmental and ethical standards are urgently needed [for schools] … and mandatory food standards have proven to be the only successful way to improve food in the public sector, which is best demonstrated by the successful introduction of legal nutritional standards for school food.”


Indeed, while some schools are successfully introducing more sustainable sourcing, others have perhaps moved a little too quickly. “The food needs to be the right price and it has to be accepted by the children,” says LACA’s Russell. “I know of a school where they sourced local food but didn’t engage with the children as to why there were different things available on the menu, and the story behind those changes. Sometimes we need small steps.”


It’s not easy producing food for the fussy, but plenty of schools are encouraging more children to eat school meals – and benefitting from it . “It can be more expensive to produce healthier, more sustainable meals depending on sourcing and supplier support,” says Nestle’s Clarke, “but, if school caterers invest in marketing to parents to show that their food is sustainable and healthy, to help drive school meal uptake, this will make it a more viable operation. It all helps to justify the value that school meals offer.”