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School food standards on the slide

Huge cost pressures are forcing some caterers to serve lower quality meals. Is the crisis the sector has been predicting for years finally coming to a head? David Burrows reports.

New school food survey. More than one in 10 (13%) school caterers have been forced to cut food standards due to pressures in the supply chain and rising costs. Almost one in two (47%) haven’t dropped standards yet but are worried they may need to if the current situation doesn’t improve. The findings are from a survey of 47 caterers by the Soil Association. They are “an outrage” the organisation said but “they are not the fault of caterers”. “We know that caterers care deeply about the quality of the meals they serve and any that are serving lower quality meals are doing so due to a lack of support in hugely challenging circumstances,” said a spokesperson. 

Providers are doing all they can to keep the meals coming. Some 32% have reduced the number of menu options that include meat and 26% have cut back on the quantity of meat purchased. More than one in four (28%) are serving less meat (while maintaining the quality served) which for the climate is no bad thing. The cost of meat is also forcing caterers to innovate, with some blending vegetables into burgers – a move that can save costs and carbon. But there is only so much they can do. 

Around a quarter (28%) are in conversations to renegotiate contracts but 55% have been unable to do so. In June, the government announced a 2.9% (7p) rise in funding for universal infant free school meals. Laca, the school caterers’ association for England and Wales, said its members were facing 20% rises in food costs. It has also claimed the quality of meals is under threat. “Many of our members are at breaking point, the industry needs meaningful investment,” a spokesperson told Schools Week.

Less British as options shrink. The Soil Association found one in five (21%) caterers have started substituting British meat with imported meat. Laca’s recent survey found 84% have changed menus and 37% have cut choices. Some 80% of food buyers quizzed in a new Sodexo study also reported that their customers were considering using cheaper ingredients or smaller portions. This could all see the number of children choosing school meals fall – exactly the opposite of what needs to happen. “The first step towards ensuring school meals remain of a high quality is to get as many children as possible eating them, thereby creating economies of scale,” said Rob Percival, head of food policy at the Soil Association. 

Research by Laca, Payparent and Cypad among more than 300,000 parents recently showed that a wider selection of meals, higher quality and lower costs were the top three factors that would encourage increased school meal uptake. All are under threat currently. Expanding free school meal eligibility “would provide a wider nutritional safety net, supporting hungry children, while also helping caterers to meet the challenge of rising costs”, Percival added.

What next for nutritional quality? Many caterers are also considering whether processed foods, which take less time to prepare and reduce labour (where costs are rising and staff are in short supply) could be a solution: only 6% are using more processed foods, according to the Soil Association, but 55% are worried they may soon have to.

The nutritional quality of school meals was in the news last week following research in the journal Nutrients that showed 64% of the calories in meals provided by schools come from ultra-processed foods (UFPs), which increase the risk of childhood obesity. Bread, snacks, puddings and sugary drinks were among the biggest contributors in the 3,000 school lunches assessed by the researchers from Imperial College London using data from the UK’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey (2008-2017). 

“School meals should offer children from all backgrounds access to a healthy and minimally processed meal, yet they are currently failing to meet their potential,” said Imperial’s Jennie Parnham, who led the study. She and her colleagues called for “urgent policy changes” to cap the amount of processed foods in school lunches and to increase access to free school meals.

Time for another turkey twizzler moment? In Imperial’s study, packed lunches carried higher levels of UPFs than school meals, while levels were higher in meals served in secondary compared to primary schools – just 13% of calories served to young children were from UPFs. Chefs in Schools, a charity, said school meals have improved “significantly” but progress in England has stalled. 

“It can’t be acceptable that two thirds of the food consumed is made from highly processed ingredients,” it said in a statement. “In the name of cost efficiencies, there’s been a focus on stripping down the number of people making school food, hence an over reliance on processed, pre-made food items and an industry existentially vulnerable to shocks in the food supply system.” Chefs in Schools’ model is to work with schools to reverse the cost, so more money is spent on skilled labour that can “make the most out of raw ingredients. That doesn’t mean cheaper food on the plate – but it can mean matching the price overall.”

The Soil Association pointed to some caterers in its food for life scheme that are still managing to provide “nutritious, tasty meals in a sustainable way” – with some still managing to use at least 5% organic ingredients. Some schools told the FT, which first reported the Soil Association’s survey, they were still trying to absorb costs rather than pass them on. But years of underfunding coupled with the current levels of inflation means something has to give. 

“School caterers have been warning of a growing crisis for years and now, predictably, it has come to a head,” Percival said. “The government needs to be more ambitious and undertake a comprehensive review of school food policy and funding, ensuring that caterers are supported to deliver fresh and sustainable meals, and that no child ever goes hungry while at school,” he added.