COMMENT: Get serious about school food crisis

A paltry increase in school meal funding shows that ministers are out of touch with the pressures facing caterers, says Nick Hughes.

From farms to food banks, supermarket aisles to restaurant kitchens, the rising cost of food and energy is being felt acutely across the country. Everywhere that is except in Westminster where it seems the only crisis worthy of serious and sober reflection from ministers is the psychodrama playing out in the Conservative Party.

That’s the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the government’s tin-eared recent decision to increase funding for universal infant free school meals (UIFSM), provided to all children in reception, years 1 and 2 in England, by just 2.9% and funding for eligible children in year 3 and upwards by just 2.1%. This at a time when consumer price inflation is approaching double digits and caterers are experiencing an average food cost increase of 20% since April 2020.

The latter figure is based on a survey from Laca, the school caterers' association for England and Wales, published in July. It also found that 90% of caterers are experiencing food shortages as a result of supply chain issues and the rising cost of food; 78% have had to change their menus or reduce menu options as a result of supply chain issues; 40% are concerned they will no longer be able to meet the school food standards in the new academic year; and 55% said that if things do not improve, school food quality will deteriorate.

Evidence suggests a managed decline in food quality is already happening within schools: 12% of caterers surveyed by Laca said they were already using more processed food, with 34% considering doing so. Twenty percent, meanwhile, have switched from British meat to meat sourced from abroad that is often produced to lower standards.

new Soil Association survey found a similar trend for caterers to source more imported and less organic meat, while reducing the overall number of menu options containing meat.

The government’s recent levelling up whitepaper had some laudable aims where school food is concerned, including new educational content for the curriculum and training in a whole school approach to food. But any benefits will be negated if caterers are forced into a race to the bottom on the quality of food they are able to serve.

Last month’s national food strategy whitepaper has rightly been criticised for not getting to grips with huge structural challenges like climate change and diet-related ill-health facing the food system, but nor did it promise sufficient measures to address the immediate-term challenges with the supply and affordability of food.

The government has been especially intransigent over free school meals. It has so far resisted the recommendation made by Henry Dimbleby in his independent national food strategy to extend eligibility to all children whose parents earn less than £20,000.

Laca wants to see an urgent increase in funding both for UIFSM and free school meals and for funding to rise annually with inflation.

It is calling too for school meals funding to be ring-fenced, noting how the budget is currently issued to schools who do not always pass the full amount on to the caterer. Over one-third (38%) of members who responded to Laca’s survey said they do not receive the full £2.47 per meal for free school meals.

The government recently told the BBC it was watching the issue of funding for free school meals "very closely" as costs rise. But watching is of no use to caterers trying to feed children good food on a shoestring budget.

Food businesses are warning that the food price crisis is going to get worse before it gets better. It’s high time ministers stopped with the navel gazing and started supporting those who keep the nation’s children fed.

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