School food: A tiny turning of the tide?

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We have cause for optimism over the School Food Plan, which promises to put morality ahead of party politics. Christine Lewis explains.

My delight at the announcement that universal free school meals (FSM) will be available to all children under eight in England is only confined by my desire to see them available to all children and young people in education.

School meals have been a curiosity in the last 10 years, swimming against the neo-liberal tide, despite being its early casualty more than 30 years ago. The service reached an all-time low (apologies to service providers who chose to provide excellence) after deregulation, price hikes and take-up crashes, compulsory competitive tendering and the saturation of cheap, junk food into our culture.

A school meals campaign soldiered on from the 1980s, but an army marches on its stomach and there were few crumbs from the political table. Then we had the Jamie Oliver TV series and Feed Me Better campaign and nothing succeeds like success – or celebrity. 

In 2005, the Children’s Food Trust was established and the government-convened school meals review panel produced 35 recommendations which led to new nutritional standards and the removal of confectionery, salty snacks and fizzy drinks from schools. The report, Turning the Tables, was comprehensive in scope, referred to the impact of meal price on low-income families and asked government to investigate options for reducing it.

With a change of government, austerity and public sector cuts, few in the school food lobby would have predicted the dawning of the School Food Plan. News of a review to be carried out by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, founders of Leon restaurants, was met with apprehension and cynicism by some. Was this a vehicle for abolishing the nutritional standards?

Let the document speak for itself. The style is very different to the usual bureaucratic offering, but no worse for that. From UNISON’s point of view, the chapter on the workforce and its commitment to training and professional development is very welcome.

So too is the acknowledgment that school catering staff have “a range of skills that many in the restaurant trade would envy”. The plan says that it is a mistake to think of school caterers as “dinner ladies” of legend and that the reviewers have met male and female chefs, young and old, and many who started out in industry.

In the on-going work of the plan they intend to bring the staff closer to the rest of the catering sector and have Jamie Oliver on board to help them. There are other welcome elements to the plan, like cooking in the curriculum and £11.8 million for organisations to work with schools to increase take-up. 

New food-based standards will be trialled until January 2014 and then a 12-week consultation period will follow. They will apply to the whole maintained sector, including academies and free schools (not statutory for post-2010 to 2013 converters, but chains are signing up) and the Department for Education will monitor compliance in sample schools annually. Data will be collected regularly to measure success and one of its five criteria will be the morale of staff. 

The most startling part of the plan is on hunger and food poverty and a recommendation that government embarks on a phased roll-out of universal FSM for primary school children. The plan announced the provision of £3.15 million towards generating breakfast clubs in the poorest areas of England and now we will have FSM for tots from September 2014. 

Henry and John’s defence of universality would grace an Old Labour platform, but they are keen to disassociate themselves from party politics. All the arguments are made about pilot evidence, positive impact and long-term cost-effectiveness, much like those made for the Living Wage. But could it just be that old-fashioned morality is making a come-back, that the shame of food-banks, poverty pay, zero-hour contracts and the gulf between rich and poor in the seventh richest country in the world is intolerable? I do not see the harm in starting the new academic year with a bit of cock-eyed optimism.

  • Christine Lewis is national officer for education with UNISON and a member of the School Food Plan expert panel. Visit www.unison.org.uk/education


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