Is there an appetite for free school meals?

Theresa May dropped plans to cut universal free lunches from the Queen’s Speech – but that doesn’t mean an expensive and unproven policy is safe. By David Burrows.

On June 16th, Jamie Oliver suggested the prime minister would be committing “political suicide” if she tried to push plans to axe universal infant free school meals (UIFSM) through parliament. “I’ll be truly amazed” if Theresa May goes through with the cuts, said the celebrity chef who put school kitchens in the spotlight all those years ago.

With May already reeling from a pounding at the polls the week before, there was little surprise when one of the most unpopular policies in her party’s manifesto didn’t appear in the Queen’s Speech last week.

“It would have involved going back to the House of Commons to try to change the Children and Families Act,” a government source told the Evening Standard. “It’s just not doable with parliamentary arithmetic.”

Supporters of UIFSM – including caterers, headteachers and the 60,000 parents who signed an online petition – breathed a sigh of relief, but it could be short-lived. The queen was announcing the legislative programme for the next two years and this is a Conservative government that seemingly views UIFSM as a policy that no longer adds up.

In February last year the extra funding to help the smallest schools cope with providing the meals was “quietly” removed and the thinking seems to be that dishing out free hot lunches for every child in the first three years of primary school isn’t a sensible use of public money – especially in times of (even semi-diluted) austerity.

Many say this is “madness” given that millions have been invested and it’s too early to determine whether the scheme is working, but the clock is now ticking to prove the policy’s worth.

Back to packed lunches

UIFSM were introduced in 2014, following recommendations by the Leon co-founders John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby in their 2013 School Food Plan, commissioned by the coalition government.

“We understand the considerable cost and the need to involve other departments make it a big ask,” they wrote, but “we believe that there is enough evidence – both from abroad and from English schools – to justify the partial introduction of universal free school meals.”

A 2013 report, written by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the National Centre for Social Research and Bryson Purdon Social Research, concluded that take-up was very good in two pilot areas, attainment increased and there was also a shift in the types of food that pupils ate at lunchtime – away from packed lunches and towards hot meals. This was critical, as Andy Kemp, the group sales and marketing director of Bidfood, explains.

“Only 1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional guidelines set for school food,” he says in an interview with Footprint. Crisps, sugary drinks, chocolate and even “yesterday’s KFC” find their way into the lunchbox which, if anything, runs contrary to the government’s stated aims to curb levels of childhood obesity and reduce consumption of foods high in fat, salt and sugar.

Vincent and Dimbleby echoed this in a blogpost recently. “Eating a proper cooked meal in the middle of the day has been shown to have a positive impact on a child’s overall diet, not just at school,” they wrote. “Without UIFSM, the number of kids eating packed lunches is certain to increase.”

But though there were positive impacts on diet, the 2013 report found no evidence that free school meals led to significant health benefits during the two-year pilot period. In a nutshell, the policy showed potential but more work was needed.

One of the authors recently reiterated this during an interview on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme covering the plans in Labour’s manifesto to roll the meals out to all primary school pupils.

“We found that there was no impact on absences, so it wasn’t through children attending school more; there was no impact on things like BMI so while we found that there was a slight improvement in attainment we struggled to find the mechanism by which this took place,” explained the IFS’s Lorraine Dearden. “We definitely concluded that we needed more work.”

Dearden suggested it would be “overstating it quite a bit” to use the findings from a couple of pilots to expand the “very, very expensive” scheme. As noted above, small schools in particular have struggled to make the scheme financially viable. The policy as a whole costs £600m a year (with another £150m invested in school kitchens) and at the outset there were plenty who wondered whether providing free hot dinners to children from wealthy families was a good use of taxpayers’ money. Comparisons have unsurprisingly been drawn with the winter fuel allowance.

Potty and premature?

The IFS has calculated that extending free school meals to every child would cost an additional £950m a year, plus £270m in upfront costs such as refitting kitchens. For a researcher like Dearden it’s her prerogative to suggest a need for more research, but she has a point.

While an extension should be approached with caution, dropping the scheme altogether seems premature. “Almost 17,000 school chefs would lose their jobs, and the huge taxpayer investment into school kitchens would have gone to waste,” says Sally Shadrack, the chair of the Lead Association for Catering in Education.

Kemp adds: “Lots of local authority contracts wouldn’t work without UIFSM. Caterers couldn’t afford to staff [the lunches] and distributors couldn’t afford to deliver.” Some of the smaller initiatives would undoubtedly go bankrupt.

Almost 80% of the schools recently surveyed by the Soil Association were “very concerned” by the potential withdrawal of UIFSM. Of these, 37% said their school kitchen could have to close if the axe fell on the scheme; for schools with in-house catering and fewer than 200 pupils the figure rose to 47%.

“The real frustration for school leaders is the time, effort and money that was spent making this policy work, only to discover a few short years down the line it looks set to be dropped – and soon forgotten,” wrote James Bowden, the director of teachers’ union NAHT Edge.

Despite reports that 2,700 primary schools needed new catering facilities before they could offer the meals, the scheme was rolled out at “breakneck speed”. As Jeanette Orrey, the co-founder of the Food for Life initiative, explains: “Everything that has been asked of the school catering workforce has been delivered and to take this away now is sheer short-sighted madness.”

Orrey recalls the remarks of one of those affected by UIFSM when they were first introduced: “I cook for 80 a day, it’s going to be over 200 next week. I don’t know if I can do it.” But, like many others, they managed it.

Some are still struggling but many are coping and the hope is that many more will thrive. Come 2019 UIFSM will have been running for five years, offering a much wider pool of evidence to draw upon (not to mention best practice). However, there will be Brexit to deal with.

Hard times ahead post-Brexit

Food prices could rocket if the UK leaves the single market, presenting considerable challenges for a scheme that has a budget of £2.30 a meal. Kemp has confidence in the industry’s “smart operators” to weather any such spikes – and there may additional benefits in terms of sustainable consumption.

“I think we’ll see greater use of the Mediterranean diet, with less focus on meat at the centre of each plate,” he says. “We’re already seeing amazing things being done with pasta and dishes like vegetarian lasagne.”

It takes time to shift eating habits, of course, so supporters want the government to commit to a rigorous long-term evaluation of the health, educational and social benefits resulting from the policy. “It must ensure that schools and caterers are supported to deliver high quality, healthy and sustainable meals,” says Joanna Lewis, the strategy and policy director of the Soil Association.

The government also needs to back its farmers. The amount of British food supplied to schools has rocketed 40% since the introduction of free school meals but Brexit spells the end of the Common Agricultural Policy payments and this means that the future of British produce hangs in the balance.

As the new secretary of state at DEFRA, Michael Gove is the man tasked with delivering a deal for producers and the food industry. The early noises he’s made have been contradictory: he wants to support farmers and improve standards but at the same time drop tariffs on imported goods and cut prices.

Gove’s views on UIFSM appear similarly confused: the former education secretary reportedly believes that diverting money away from teaching is “wholly unacceptable”, and yet he has called free school meals that “rarest of political treasures: a policy that has cross-party support”.

Many teachers, caterers, pupils and politicians now treasure a policy that was initially criticised as unworkable, untimely, ineffective and expensive. It’s far from perfect but there is an appetite to see it succeed. Is it proving value for money? Only time will tell, but as the food journalist and author Bee Wilson suggested in a recent column: some of the benefits of free school meals might be difficult to measure … but some things are worth spending money on.

 

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