Supporting delivery of universal FSMs

Written by: Peter Henshaw | Published:
Photograph: Children's Food Trust

Media attention may have died down since September, but the challenge of delivering universal free school meals to all of key stage 1 continues. Jeremy Boardman of the Children’s Food Trust discusses the practical support available to improve your meals s

Since early September, 1.5 million infant pupils in around 16,000 schools have had the opportunity to sit down every lunchtime to a free school meal (FSM).

As an organisation which has long campaigned for the right of children to eat better we think this development has ushered in an exciting new era in school food. Yes, there have been bumps in the road – that is to be expected when you consider the sheer scale of the endeavour – but what we are seeing is an overwhelming enthusiasm and determination from schools to make this work.

And it is working. From what we are hearing from the thousands of infant and primary schools we support, demand for these meals is soaring.

We believe the huge effort being made by headteachers and their teams around the country to make this happen is worth it. Our research shows that when children eat better they do better and, as school meals have to meet national standards for nutrition, they are an ideal way to help children develop good food choices as habit.

But heads cannot do this alone. That is why we set up a free advice service in partnership with LACA (the Lead Association for Catering in Education). These advisors – there are now around 50 who cover every corner of the country – are all experts in school catering and give schools free advice on how to increase their lunchtime capacity, bring in new catering facilities, and ensure that the increased demand can be handled without too much difficulty.

These advisors played a key role in helping schools prepare for the introduction of free infant school meals in the run-up to September.

For example, Haddenham St Mary’s School in Buckinghamshire hadn’t provided any school meals before September but the school was ready on day one to feed 100 infants. The school is having a completely new kitchen in which they can prepare fresh, healthy meals every day for every child in reception, years 1 and 2. And until that’s ready, a small, local food provider within the village is supplying home-cooked meals using the produce that the children have grown from the garden.

One of our advisors is Steve McGuiness. Based in Leeds, he has years of experience in the catering trade and was in charge of catering services for 160 schools in the Wakefield local authority before joining the advisor team. He is working with schools to overcome any challenges they face with the introduction of free school meals for all infants.

“Most schools are handling the expansion of school meals really well, but there are challenges as should be expected,” Mr McGuiness explained. “The most common challenge is getting the increased number of children through the canteen on time without having too much of an impact on the school day. We’re helping by identifying efficiencies to help them ensure it goes smoothly, and pinpointing barriers they need to overcome to get there.”

Mr McGuiness works closely with schools to analyse any issues they have with their lunchtime service and then develop solutions.

“For example when I go into a school dining room we often look at bottlenecks,” he continued. “These are common issues since the introduction of free infant school meals. These are usually at serving areas because very young children can take their time if they are being offered a choice. I often recommend pre-ordering, usually at registration, which helps to solve this issue. It also guarantees that every child gets their first-choice meal.

“I’ve also recommend the simplification of the make-up of meals with some schools. For example, if a child orders a roast beef dinner that will automatically come with potatoes, vegetables and Yorkshire pudding. If schools reduce the choices that need to be made for each meal, this makes the serving process quicker and it ensures that each child receives a rounded meal with all the main elements.”

He added: “A lot of schools have welcomed me going in as an external observer. I have been able to look at any issues with a fresh perspective. It helps them make those changes.”

Morton CE Primary School in south Lincolnshire had a take up of between 20 and 30 school meals, so the introduction of FSM for every year 1 and 2 child looked set to provide a big challenge. However, with the support of the free advice service, they worked out how they could increase this for up to 80 infants. This included bringing in a new hot food counter, new tables and setting up a system so that children’s parents can place meal orders online. Headteacher George Trafford said: “The advice and support from the Children’s Food Trust and LACA was invaluable, helping us source the correct equipment, deal with external caterers and plan for the future. We’ve been delighted to recommend the service to other Lincolnshire schools.”

Ensuring as many children as possible get a healthy, cooked school meal at lunchtime is important, but we know that headteachers and their teams need advice and support, especially when they are juggling many high priorities in addition to school meals.

That’s why we at the Children’s Food Trust and advisors like Steve are available and waiting to help steer schools through any issues they may have with the expansion of free school meals.

A school food checklist for headteachers

The School Food Plan checklist for headteachers covers all the things which can make a big difference to school meal take-up and food culture in schools. Key advice includes:

  • Get the community involved: Give parents, carers and grandparents the opportunity to taste school food and eat with the children at lunchtime and/or parents’ evenings.
  • Get the right contract: Don’t draw up a new contract alone – lots of other schools have done this before you, and found ways to get a good deal. Use an expert to help you draft it.
  • Give children what they care about: Ask yourself whether the food looks appetising and tastes good. Be sure there is a mix of familiar and new foods for the children, and that the catering staff encourage children to experiment.
  • Environment: To keep queueing times short try staggering lunch breaks, introducing more service points, serving at the table and reducing choice.
  • Social life: Have a stay-on-site rule at break and lunchtime. Don’t segregate those with packed lunches and structure the lunch break so there is enough time for eating as well as activities or clubs. This may mean making the lunch break longer or timing the clubs differently.
  • Improve the brand: Encourage teachers to eat in the dining room with the children. This has a unifying effect on the whole school, and raises the status of school meals.
  • Adopt a whole-school approach. Treat lunchtime as part of the school day, your canteen as an extra classroom and your cooks and lunchtime supervisors as key members of staff, on a par with teachers and business managers.
  • Jeremy Boardman is head of schools at the Children’s Food Trust.

Further information

  • With a focus on diet, family cooking skills, lifestyle and food education, the Children’s Food Trust exists to help protect every child’s right to eat better. It provides advice, training and support to anyone who provides food for children. Visit www.childrensfoodtrust.org.uk
  • Further details on the advice service, funded by the Department for Education, and other support available from the Children’s Food Trust is available at www.childrensfoodtrust.org.uk/schoolfoodplan
  • You can download the school food checklist for headteachers at www.schoolfoodplan.com/checklist/


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