Driving school food take-up


Jo Wild reports on a government-funded project offering support to boost school meal take-up.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the recent campaign on school food had put all its eggs in one proverbial basket, that of universal infant free school meals (UIFSM). To date, it would initially appear that secondary schools have been forgotten.

However, while UIFSM is what has grabbed the majority of the media headlines, the reality is very different.

In the summer of 2013, restaurateurs Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent produced the School Food Plan, a simple but ground-breaking review of school food. There were 16 “actions” from the plan, ranging from improving breakfast clubs to simplifying the School Food Standards and re-introducing cookery to the curriculum.

In response, the coalition government accepted the review and immediately announced UIFSM, but in truth this is only half the story. Another of the key actions from the plan is support to kick-start an increase in take-up of good school food in those schools not eligible for UIFSM support, including secondary schools.

To do this, the Department for Education has funded a programme of support for junior, middle, secondary and special schools, as well as pupil referral units, with below-average meal take up.

The aim of this support is to ensure the long-term viability of the school meal service and increase access to good school food – which in turn has the potential to support improvements in behaviour, attainment and attendance. 

This can be particularly important in secondary schools where pupils can often leave site at lunchtime and the meal on offer in the school canteen has to compete with well-marketed national brands.

In the North of England, Midlands and London, this support is being delivered by national school food experts the Food for Life Partnership, which is providing free tailored support to schools who meet the eligibility criteria. The Increase Your School Meal Take Up programme includes:

  • Up to six training sessions tailored for headteachers, school food leads, cooks and caterers.

  • A bespoke online action plan and range of supporting resources.

  • Specialist regional support including advice for cooks and caterers.

In the South West, South East and East of England, support is being provided by the Children’s Food Trust (see panel, right).

When the School Food Plan was released the authors were clear that the success would not be possible via a top-down approach. In their annual review, published in October 2014, they stated: “Excellence does not come through government decree. Providing a free meal doesn’t guarantee that it will be good, or that a child will eat it. 

“Excellence is created by great school leaders, and by imaginative school cooks and teachers who are given the right circumstances and the right culture in which to flourish.”

It is in this ethos that the programme has been developed. The school leadership team and particularly the headteacher are central to the success of any widespread changes in a school. 

A key action or “kick-start”, as they are called, is setting up a School Food Action Group which, if done effectively, can underpin all the changes in a school and make sure everyone’s voice is heard.

The role of the Action Group is also to consider which improvements or adaptations a school can make. For example, it would possibly be counter-productive to initially offer a meal deal without first tackling any issues with queueing. 

Often a visible issue is caused by a different underlying problem, such as the overall dining experience not being a good one. If a school adds another service point or grab-and-go café-style service points in the 6th form, the dining hall can become an immediately calmer place and pupils have more time to eat.

The resources have been put together in such a way that schools will identify areas that they want to improve and there is recognition that these will vary depending on the size of the school, the school meal provision, and the resources available, such as dining space.

There is flexibility to tailor the action plan to a specific school and there is support on the ground from a team of Food for Life Partnership officers.

Food is such a vast topic the opportunities stretch way beyond the dining hall. Schools have the opportunity to use food as a way of engaging pupils, parents and the wider community in a novel way. We all need to eat, but good food can fuel far more.

Your School Meal Take Up: Criteria

All pupil referral units and  junior, middle, secondary, and special schools in the North, Midlands or London – including academies and free schools – who meet one or more of the criteria below will qualify for support:

  • An overall take up of school meals lower than 43 per cent of pupils.

  • Less than 76 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals are taking up their entitlement meals.

  • Less than 35 per cent of non-free school meal pupils are purchasing school meals.

Applications are open and places are limited. To register or for more information, visit www.foodforlife.org.uk/takeup or call 0117 314 5180. For information about support provided by the Children’s Food Trust in the South West, South East and East of England, visit www.childrensfoodtrust.org.uk

  • Jo Wild is communications and engagement manager for the Food For Life Partnership.

Photo: Food For Life Partnership.


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