Driving school meal take-up

Written by: Jo Wild | Published:

There is more to the School Food Plan than universal free school meals. 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). While that is what has grabbed the majority of headlines, the reality is far different.

In the summer of 2013, restaurateurs Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent produced the School Food Plan, a simple and 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 kickstart an increase in take up of good school food in those schools not eligible for UIFSM support.

To do this, the Department for Education has funded a programme of support for junior, middle, secondary, PRUs and special schools 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.

In the North of England, the Midlands and London, this is being by delivered by national school food experts the Food for Life Partnership, who are providing free tailored support to schools that meet the eligibility criteria. This includes up to six training sessions for headteachers, school food leads, cooks and caterers, a bespoke online action plan and supporting resources, and specialist regional support including advice for cooks and caterers.

When the School Food Plan was released, the authors were clear that the success would not be down to 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 Increase Your School Meal Take Up programme has been developed.

The school leadership team and particularly the headteacher are central to the success of any widespread changes in a school. Jo Wooton, a member of the Small Schools Task Force, set up as part of the School Food Plan and one of the hosts of "What Works Well" visits, said she could not have increased school meal numbers in her Cornish primary school without the full support and involvement of her head.

She explained: "I know headteachers have many conflicting priorities, but, a hungry child doesn't learn – it is as simple as that and I think we all have a job to convince headteachers that school food is key."

Ms Wooton believes that food should be an integral part of the school day. From maths to cookery, she is full of ideas of how primary-age pupils can help count the meal numbers or have baking sales. She believes that this whole-school approach can then help children taste new foods and become excited by food.

A key action 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 queuing. 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 family style dining where older pupils serve younger ones, the dining hall can become an immediately calmer place and pupils have more time to eat.

Ms Wooton added that the way that the campaign's resources have been put together means 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 the 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.

Ms Wooton says that her one piece of advice is to keep it simple. For example, her menu says seasonal vegetables, so this gives her flexibility to buy what is in season or on offer. She added: "I think the School Food Plan was written for someone who wants to deliver food as it should be, simply and with thought. For small caterers like me it is perfect, I still look at the principles regularly – it is simple and it is not a complicated document."

Increase Your School Meal Take Up

All junior, middle, secondary, PRUs 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 and/or...
  • Less than 76 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals are taking up their entitlement meals and/or...
  • Less than 35 per cent of non-free school meal pupils are purchasing school meals.
  • Jo Wild is communications and engagement manager for the Food For Life Partnership.

Further information

Applications are open now 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

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