School food in England: Are we getting it right?


School food has changed dramatically in the past 10 years. Across the UK, and indeed in other European countries, the USA, Brazil, China, across Africa and elsewhere, the impetus to review school food as a means to improve child health, educational outcomes, and economic and agricultural security (Bundy et al. 2009) has fostered a raft of guidelines and legislation to change what children eat. There has been nothing less than a revolution in school food around the world (WFP 2013).

Some countries, like Finland, were well ahead of the curve – healthy meals at lunch time, limited choice, universal and free. Many others were in the grip of commercial pressures to provide whatever sold, a sad attempt to compete with the quick service restaurants in the high street and turn a profit, with little regard for child nutrition, education, food quality or food culture.

In England in 2005, the School Meals Review Panel (SMRP) (SMRP 2005) brought together the key players (caterers, local and national government, schools and teachers, parents, nutritionists, academics and the food industry) to thrash out a consensus approach to improve what was (in many instances) poor quality school food. Robust legislation (Statutory Instrument 2007; The Education Regulations 2007) introduced compulsory standards in England between 2006 and 2008 to ensure that school catering was healthy, and that caterers and schools sat up and took notice. Further details of the legislation and of the regulations in place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can be found in the review in this issue by Weichselbaum and Buttriss (2014, pp. 9–73). The work of the School Food Trust (now the Children's Food Trust), the Food for Life Partnership, Let's Get Cooking, together with numerous government, Lottery funded and charitable interventions, produced dramatic and demonstrable improvements in school food provision, and consumption (Haroun et al. 2011; Nicholas et al. 2013; SFM 2013) and monitoring (Nelson et al. 2012a) became the norm (everyone stayed informed about what was going on). No one could say that change was not happening for the better, and caterers (both public and private) worked tirelessly with their school food partners across the board to improve school food, kitchens, dining spaces, food education and food culture.

This is not to say all was perfect. School food provision was often subsidised by schools or local authorities in order to make meals affordable. Some schools produced excellent and tasty food, while in others, it was drab and uninteresting, even if it met the standards. Compliance with the standards was far from universal. Take up remained stubbornly low – in spite of improvements since 2005; by 2012, less than half of pupils in school were taking a school lunch, and around a quarter of that group were getting their lunch for free (Nelson et al. 2012a). While some schools and local authorities were doing brilliantly, with take up over 80%, in others, it was 25% or even less (Nelson et al. 2012b). Not all pupils eligible for free school meals took up their entitlement and, many parents insisted on providing a packed lunch, either because they said that they could not afford school meals or because they (and their children) sought ‘consumption confidence’ – the need to ensure that their children ate something at lunchtime, as well as uncertainty that their children would like or eat the school food on offer. This was in spite of abundant evidence that school food is excellent value, better balanced and much healthier than packed lunches (Stevens et al. 2013).

Sadly, the election in 2010 resulted in a hiatus. A ban on using public money for marketing meant that healthy school food could no longer be promoted to caterers, schools, pupils or parents using government-funded resources. The grant to the Children's Food Trust (Nelson 2013), in which they worked with schools, caterers and local authorities to transform school food, was not renewed. The Annual Survey (Nelson et al. 2012c), a national survey measuring school lunch take up and attitudes and practices relating to school food provision, which had been running every year from 2006 to 2011–2012, was not funded for 2012–2013. Cuts in local authority budgets resulted in the loss of school food advisors across the country – less than one-third of local authorities now have school food advisors in post. Academies were no longer required to follow the standards, despite evidence that secondary academies were much more likely to be providing non-compliant food and drink (e.g. soft drinks, high fat/salt savoury snacks) compared with other secondary schools in England and that their average provision was less likely to be compliant with the standards (Nelson & Wood 2012), and in spite of evidence of the wider benefits of the improvements in school food and dining spaces on pupil learning behaviours (Golley et al. 2010; Storey et al. 2011) and attainment (Belot & James 2011; Kitchen et al. 2013).

The public discussion about school food did not go away, however. Items in national and local media, campaigns to continue with compulsory school food standards by numerous charities and celebrity chefs, as well as a widespread feeling that the progress that had been made should not be lost, resulted in renewed thinking by government. In July 2012, the Secretary of State for Education asked the founders of the LEON fast food chain, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, to lead an independent review of the current standards and recommend actions that would once again take forward the school food agenda (Dimbleby & Vincent 2013). Dimbleby and Vincent visited over 60 schools to see for themselves what school food looked and tasted like and how it was being delivered. Their deliberations were informed by an advisory panel, which included many of the players who had been instrumental in developing and implementing the programme of change since 2005.

Their report, the School Food Plan, was published by the Department for Education (DfE) in July 2013 (Dimbleby & Vincent 2013). A News and Views article in this issue by Schabas (2014, pp. 99–104) provides a useful summary of how the Plan, a series of actions (not mere recommendations), is designed to reinvigorate the school food agenda and ensure that the shortcomings raised above, plus other actions (such as revising the standards and guidance to make them easier to follow; ensuring that school food is tasty and appealing; helping small schools deliver healthy food; measuring take up in 2013–2014), are properly addressed and funded. Tenders for various items of work were published in November–December 2013, and by the time this editorial is published, just under £5 million will have been allocated to teams working to increase take up in the 2000 junior and secondary schools in England with the lowest take up; and a further £3 million to set up breakfast clubs in at least 500 schools in England where free school meal eligibility is over 35% and currently no breakfast club exists. A further £150 000 will be spent to evaluate the impact of the breakfast club programme. Additional funding from DfE and a number of charitable Trusts will be in place by 2015.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the announcement by the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, at the Liberal Democrat Annual Conference in September 2013, that all pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 would be eligible to receive a free school meal (School Food Plan Chapter 11: ‘An assessment of universal free school meals’1) (Kitchen et al. 2013). The Chancellor's autumn statement (HM Treasury 2013) in December confirmed that £419 million would be made available in 2014–2015 and, a further £590 million in 2015–2016, to implement the programme (all ‘new’ money from the Treasury). A further £76 million was made available to support free school meal allocation to vulnerable 16–18 year-olds. Another £150 million would be made available for capital improvements to school kitchens and dining rooms (£70 million ‘new’ money and £80 million from DfE underspends). This is serious money.

Another article in this issue on the role of beverages in childhood nutrition (Sidnell 2014, pp. 137–40) continues a long-running debate about the importance of hydration to children's wellbeing. This is also a theme in the paper by Weichselbaum and Buttriss in this issue (2014, pp. 9–73). A summary of a satellite symposium at the 20th International Congress of Nutrition held in Granada, Spain, in September 2013 highlights the diversity of research showing the importance of hydration and low-energy and/or nutrient-dense beverages to childhood nutrition. In all three presentations described in the article by Sidnell, there is evidence that many children regularly failed to meet the Dietary Reference Intake or European Union recommendation for fluid intake. Discussion at the symposium highlighted the importance of availability and consumption of water in schools, which, in turn, is related (in part) to the adequacy of toilet facilities – children often avoid drinking so that they are not obliged to use the toilets in schools, either because of their poor condition or over fears of bullying (Jasper et al. 2012). Just as with school food, the article illustrates how children's health may be linked to the availability of healthy options and the adequacy of facilities in schools.

One must applaud the progress that is now being made further to improve school food in England. Campaigners for universal free school meals, especially, have been surprised and delighted. Two fundamental questions remain, however: Why is school food so often a political football? And why is there no central organisation co-ordinating the implementation of policy and supporting research into school food provision and its impact on health, education and wellbeing? The two paid staff now supporting the implementation of the School Food Plan are funded through 2015; two small (separate) teams in the DfE support food policy implementation and the introduction of Universal Infant Free School Meals; myriad organisations are bidding piecemeal for the opportunities being presented by government to support implementation and evaluation of policy. This fragmented approach is unlikely to yield best value for money or a co-ordinated solution to the issues. We face a massive child health crisis, mainly in the form of an obesity epidemic (see statistics summarised in Weichselbaum & Buttriss 2014, in this issue). If better school food is key to improvement and is likely to benefit not only child health but also educational and behavioural outcomes, it is beholden on government to put in place a co-ordinating organisation, cross-departmental in character, properly funded and staffed over at least three years (and preferably five), to address the issues. While the current actions are welcome, their fragmentation and short-term funding ill-serve the urgent need to improve child health and wellbeing in England.