The School Food Plan
The quality of food in England’s schools has improved enormously since 2005, when Jamie Oliver alerted the nation to the horrors of the Turkey Twizzler. There has been a clear, measurable improvement in the nutritional quality of most school food, and a reduction in junk foods.
The best schools do a brilliant job of weaving food education – cooking, growing vegetables, even modest efforts at animal husbandry – into school life and the curriculum. We have been hugely impressed by the energy and enthusiasm we have witnessed among school cooks, caterers, teachers, nutritionists, parents, volunteers, charity workers and many others working to make school food great.
But there is still work to be done. Some schools are lagging behind, serving food that is much too bland, boring and beige. Across the country, take-up of school food remains stubbornly low, at 43%. That means that 57% of children are not eating school lunches at all. Some graze instead on snack foods served at mid-morning break (when the standard offerings in our experience are panini, pizza and cake). Others go off-site to buy their lunch – usually junk food - or bring in a packed lunch.
Many parents mistakenly imagine that a packed lunch is the healthiest option. In fact, it is far easier to get the necessary nutrients into a cooked meal – even one of mediocre quality. Only 1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards that currently apply to school food.
This country faces a serious health crisis caused by bad diet. Almost 20% of children are obese by the time they leave primary school at 11. Diet-related illnesses are putting a huge strain on the nation’s coffers – costing the NHS £10 billion every year. We need to tackle the problem now, before the costs (both personal and financial) become too heavy to bear.
Eating school dinners is better for children. It is also better for the school’s finances. A half-empty dining hall – like a half-empty restaurant – is certain to lose money. In order for the school food service to break even, average take-up needs to get above 50%. In other words, the system is currently bust. It has to be subsidised with money from school budgets and local councils, to the tune of £140 million a year.
This state of affairs is neither desirable nor necessary. Parents currently spend almost £1 billion a year on packed lunches; persuading just a fraction of them to switch to school food would make the system solvent again (and their children healthier).