Schools in England have faced a difficult return. With school leaders grappling with the challenge of ensuring pupil and staff safety and wellbeing, there are fears that hot and nutritious school meals could be the latest victim of Covid-19 and uncertain Government policy.
Food for Life, a Soil Association programme, believes good food should be easily available for everyone, everywhere and every day. We know that children who eat well learn well, and developing a healthy relationship with food during childhood sets up good eating habits for life. Thanks to the many Food for Life caterers, school cooks, teachers and Public Health commissioners, over 1 million children eat healthy and freshly prepared meals in school every day: nutritious and tasty food that’s good for them and also good for the planet.
Yet the return to school poses logistical challenges – from how kitchen staff can work safely, to how to ensure pupils queue, are served and eat their meals with appropriate social distancing measures in place. Water jugs on tables and communal salad bars, which help to provide a healthy, communal lunchtime, also need to be considered. Additional equipment may be needed to deliver meals to classrooms, and the question arises as to who should pay for this.
School cooks and caterers have been working tirelessly throughout lockdown to provide healthy and high quality meals to pupils, even as the Government’s voucher scheme floundered.
In the current challenging context, however, a hot meal service could be dropped.
The move from hot to cold meals could have negative consequences for children’s health, at a time when many are at their most vulnerable – only 1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional quality of the School Food Standards across the space of a week .
It’s only weeks since The Government published its latest Obesity Strategy. A recent study from the University of Essex showed that hot school meals were better than cold meals, and a valuable weapon in the fight against childhood obesity – an issue that’s been brought into sharper focus during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Food for Life has discovered that in some schools, a hot meal service has already been dropped – and high profile voices in the world of school food have voiced concerns.
Michael Goulston, works for Thomas Franks, a Food for Life Served Here Bronze caterer and was awarded LACA School Chef of the Year in 2018. He highlights that hot and healthy meals are still possible, but this is isn’t happening across the board telling us: “As a parent of two, I believe every child should still receive a hot meal option, not just a dry packed lunch. At Duncombe School, we offer a choice of four different freshly prepared, hot and cold meals each day. In the current Covid-19 situation, this has become more of a challenge. However, we have been working together to make sure pupils get this.
“My son’s school is just one of many schools up and down the country who are not offering a hot meal option. Some offers include just a dry cheese roll with crisps, a piece of fruit and a drink for the same price as a hot meal option. This makes me very angry knowing that my own children do not get the same quality of food that we offer on a daily basis.
“How can we not offer a hot meal? This could be the only hot meal the children get.”
Children’s health, education and nutrition is of paramount importance but there is also a potential financial and business impact, which could be significant. The move from hot to cold meals could lead to some catering outfits collapsing. One caterer has said they are anticipating having to lay off any staff who have been working for them for less than two years.
Rob Percival, Head of Policy, Food and Farming, at Soil Association, comments: “A move to packed lunches could be a disaster for children’s health. Schools face real logistical challenges in providing lunch, but a hot catered option must be the priority.
“Dietary inequalities have been exacerbated by lockdown, and for many children a hot school meal will be the only hot meal they receive each day. School cooks and caterers are the unappreciated heroes of the pandemic. We have seen outstanding meals provided by caterers in Food for Life schools. It’s essential that head teachers and school leaders prioritise hot catered meals.
“If the Government is serious about child health and tackling obesity, then we cannot afford a slippery slope into packed lunches and cold meals.”
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed major weaknesses in our food system and the latest figures paint a worrying picture: five million children in the UK are now living in households that are food insecure; over half of children who would have received free school meals are reportedly eating no vegetables; and it is well documented that there is a higher correlation of severe response to Covid-19 from those with dietary conditions such as obesity. Never has it been more pressing to ensure every pupil has access to a hot, nutritious meal every day at school.
Jeanette Orrey MBE, co-founder of Food for Life, adds: “The current situation is very mixed for many. I’ve heard about hot meals for everyone, packed lunches being brought in by some and a mixture of the two. For the school catering teams across the country, these are very challenging times.
“I feel what we must all do now is get behind the school meals catering service, to ensure pupils across the country have the access to hot, nutritious meals they need and deserve.”
H&C News applauds the work being done by Food for Life underlining the importance of children’s health, education and nutrition, well done all.
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