School meals are vital. There’s a national obesity crisis and it is affecting pupils – unless they learn to eat a balanced diet, their health and their lives are at risk.
The Children’s Food Trust has worked closely with the team behind the School Food Plan to help them with the introduction of a new set of food-based School Food Standards and in setting the objective of getting at least 70 per cent of pupils to choose school meals.
Only an estimated 43 per cent of older pupils opt for school meals and while this has increased by seven percentage points over the past three years it is still some way off the plan’s objective.
As well as the obvious advantage of children eating a healthy and nutritious meal there are also major financial implications. Most school meal services are running at a loss, so more pupils eating school meals means economies of scale, and this translates into higher turnover.
The Children’s Food Trust has developed a support and advice programme to help schools with low take-up. Make School Meals Count is government-funded and includes local authority training and bespoke support for schools to help them improve the dining experience and marketing of school meals. The aim is to help these schools increase take-up by at least five per cent.
The programme has been tested across 250 schools where it has helped drive an increase in take-up of school meals averaging around eight per cent.
One of the schools receiving this support is Lydiard Park Academy in Swindon. Currently 30 per cent of the school’s 1,000 pupils have school meals, but school business manager Alastair Dixon Patterson and catering manager Nikki Yapp want to increase this to 50 per cent within two years.
“The benefit of this programme from our point of view is that it has helped Nikki think more about catering for different customer segments rather than a single large pupil body,” Mr Dixon Patterson explained. “The needs of year 7s are different for example from those of our 6th formers.”
The school uses a cashless register system meaning it can analyse the lunchtime habits of its customers. Mr Dixon Patterson added: “By looking at the data we can engage with the pupils who aren’t regularly taking the meals to find out why and then change things.”
Mr Dixon Patterson and Ms Yapp are attending workshop sessions in Swindon along with representatives of the four other schools involved in the programme in the town. They are working with Angela Milliken-Tull, a public health specialist who is project managing the programme for Swindon Borough Council.
She runs workshops, which look at approaches schools can use to increase school meal take-up, and also works directly with the schools.
A common problem for secondaries is that students have more power to choose and often don’t choose school meals. The workshops focus on schools taking small steps rather than making sudden fundamental changes. Lydiard’s work on changing the meal-time choices of its 6th formers is a good example of this. Ms Milliken-Tull is helping Lydiard run its consultation with its 6th formers.
Mr Dixon Patterson continued: “Our 6th form started in September and most of the 80 pupils don’t take school meals at the moment. So we’re engaging with them to find out why.
“They tend to take their meals in a different way, grazing rather than sitting down to a main meal. We’re consulting them to find out how we can change things so that they will eat school meals.”
Ideas for increasing school meal take-up don’t just come from workshops and direct support – the networking element of the programme is almost as powerful, Ms Milliken-Tull said. “Schools often work in isolation so when they get an opportunity to get together and share ideas they find this really beneficial. It’s also good for creating links between the phases. If secondaries can share ideas with primaries about how best to ensure that new year 7s opt for school meals then that will have a significant impact. For many secondaries, it is easier to get year 7s to take meals and then stay with them than it is to persuade year 10s to change their habits.”
The Children’s Food Trust has launched a service to help schools guarantee their menus meet the new School Food Standards.
The menu-checking service gives schools and caterers an easy way to make sure their menus comply with the new legal requirements.
Senior nutritionist at the Children’s Food Trust, Claire Wall, said: “Our menu-checking service is designed to help caterers and cooks ensure they are meeting the new School Food Standards. Whether you are developing one or multiple menus it can take a lot of time and effort to make certain your menus come up to scratch.
“This service will give schools confidence they are compliant with the standards and that their food provides the energy and nutrients children and young people need to do well.
“Through the service our expert nutritionists will help reassure schools that they are meeting their legal obligations to provide healthy food to children in their care. Our team will check menus, using their years of experience working with schools and early years settings, and recommend improvements and support schools in offering the best service possible.”
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Jeremy Boardman is head of schools at the Children’s Food Trust.