THE GOVERNMENT’S recent confirmation of free lunches for state funded infant school pupils from September 2014 is a major investment in the drive to improve children’s health and attainment.
There is no doubt that Universal Free School Meals (UFSM) has the potential to effect very real benefits for school pupils in their first three years of primary school.
If examples of previous pilot schemes in County Durham and Newham are anything to go by, these effects are measurable; in some cases school children in pilot areas demonstrated significant improvements in academic attainment – advancing ahead of children in other regions by almost a term.
UFSM could act as an opportunity for schools and caterers to boost engagement of pupils and parents. Our experience has shown that improving food and food culture in schools has wide-ranging benefits that reach far beyond the school gates. We’ve seen through our Food for Life Partnership and Catering Mark that good eating habits at school positively influence eating habits at home, benefit the local economy and significantly boost meal up take.
As the School Food Plan sets out, there are still improvements needed to make significant change in school food culture, and to make fresh, nutritious, trustworthy food the norm. But it seems that the vital connection between good food, food education, health, academic achievement, and even local economies is now being realised. Through the School Food Plan and introduction of UFSM, the Government has put the wheels in motion to make good school food widely available.
The challenge now is to make sure higher quantity doesn’t mean lower quality. The Soil Association’s Food for Life Partnership and Food for Life Catering Mark are working with schools and caterers to make sure that good, fresh food stays firmly on the agenda.
Fresh, healthy school meals at scale
"Make it a contractual requirement for your caterer to achieve a certain standard of quality such as Food for Life". The School Food Plan head teacher checklist.
As with many new and ambitious initiatives, UFSM and the School Food Plan have ignited the enthusiasm of school food providers and schools alike, whilst simultaneously throwing light on the challenges that must be overcome in order to achieve the goals set out in both policies.
The Department of Education has invited tender bids from expert organisations to support schools to meet the challenges around the resource implications of UFSM. It is essential that, amid these concerns, the quality of meals continues to meet expectations of pupils and parents.
There is already a commitment for caterers to meet the school food nutritional standards, but offering high quality, appetising meals is key to encouraging pupils to make the choice to eat what’s on offer. For UFSM to be a success, we need to work together to change parents’ and pupils’ perceptions of school food.
This view is reinforced in the School Food Plan, which advocates the Food for Life Catering Mark as the ‘go-to’ procurement standard for schools, and encourages a wider approach to improving food culture through the Food for Life Partnership.
The Food for Life Partnership and Food for Life Catering Mark work with schools, caterers and cooks to improve food education and food culture in UK schools, and to deliver healthy school lunches at scale. Since 2009, the Catering Mark has been supporting school caterers to serve fresh food made with unprocessed ingredients, using better welfare meat and steering clear of trans fats and harmful additives.
The Catering Mark now recognises over 20% of UK school meals for meeting high standards of freshness, quality and provenance. 790,000+ Catering Mark meals are served in over 6000 UK schools every day. We have been astonished at the success of Catering Mark holders on the ground. When combined with the wider work of the Food for Life Partnership, schools have seen fantastic and widespread benefits from improving their food culture - improved uptake, more engaged staff, and increased pupil attainment - to name a few.
Catering Mark holders throughout the UK are proving that providing good quality school food, at scale, is not only possible, but can often be achieved without any increase in meal price. These best-practice examples show that quality and quantity can sit hand-in-hand, and provide an example for caterers and schools who wish to use the Food for Life approach to deliver on the School Food Plan outcomes.
There is no doubt that the provision of appetising, appealing meals will significantly contribute to a higher meal uptake, and help develop the economies of scale which will be so crucial to the success of both UFSM and the School Food Plan.
A healthy future for school food
The opening lines of the School Food Plan pay testimony to the enormous improvement that has taken place in school food since 2005. School food culture is changing for the better, and good food in schools is now seen as a right not a privilege.
UFSM and the School Food Plan actions could be significant next steps on the journey towards better school food. The Soil Association is looking forward to supporting schools and caterers to meet these goals, and to building on the great work that is already taking place in schools and kitchens across the UK.
Food for Life Catering Mark: www.sacert.org/schoolcaterers
Food for Life Partnership page http://www.foodforlife.org.uk/
The Soil Association can help caterers outline how their Catering Mark can support the aims of the School Food Plan and UFSM. Please get in touch:
[email protected] 0117 914 2414