School meals 'made smaller to save money'

Children are going hungry, teachers and parents warn

School meal portions are being shrunk, leaving children to go hungry, teachers and parents have warned. Smaller portion sizes caused by cost-cutting are reported in schools across the country and are of particular concern, given the increase in the number of impoverished pupils who rely on school lunches as their only hot meal of the day. Primary-age children, in particular, are going hungry after being given lunches that are too small, according to teachers.

The findings of a study by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) were confirmed by individual teachers and parent groups who told The Independent it was a growing problem that had to be addressed. "Children are going hungry in schools and we all know what hunger does to your ability to learn," said Mary Bousted, the ATL's general-secretary. "It is no surprise that, in the current economic climate, there has been an increase in the uptake of free school meals ... For some children, it may be their only hot meal of the day."

Figures from the School Food Trust show that the number of children eligible for free school dinners increased by 43,000 to an estimated 1,055,000 in 2010-11. More than a third of education staff have reported an increase in the take-up of free meals since 2007.

In the ATL survey, teachers warned that private providers, who are often hired to supply school meals, were cutting portion sizes to make their budgets go further and win new contracts. "The younger children pay the same price but get much less than the older ones," said one reception class teacher in Bradford. "Also, they do not get the choice as this is also saved for the older ones."

Another primary teacher added: "There are occasions when the portion size is very small and there have been times when portions have run out."

An early years teacher said: "Children who come with packed lunches eat a lot more at lunchtime."

Another said: "Some meals are delicious, others are far from it. The portions served to the children are very poor and there seems to be no regular inspection of the food, kitchens or portion size."

Margaret Morrissey, of the pressure group Parents Outloud, said it had received similar complaints from parents. "Providers would rather cut back on quantity than put up their prices because they fear a rise in cost would lose them the contract," she said. "Instead of increasing the price, they have cut back on quality and quantity. Councils should monitor providers very closely because many children – especially the young ones – have this as their main meal of the day. It is important that the meal is of good quality."Claire Kellett, a teacher working in Somerset, warned the Education Secretary, Michael Gove: "Children don't have to read Dickens – yes, Mr Gove, they're living it."

Teachers say that those pupils whose families pay for their school meals are simply receiving less for more. In all, 62 per cent of teachers surveyed by the ATL said meal prices had risen by up to 50p a day – or £95 extra a year – in some areas. Nearly half (44 per cent) of the teachers surveyed believed all primary age pupils should be entitled to free school meals.

A spokesman for the School Food Trust said: "Our research proves that school food is particularly sensitive to changes in price. In these tough financial times, access to decent food for children has never been so important."

"Every child having meals should be offered a portion of fruit and a portion of vegetables or salad every day. Since nutritional standards came into force, around three-quarters of primary school children now have a portion of veg or salad on their plate, which is great progress." He added that schools needed support to "run their catering efficiently and to deal with rising costs".

Michelle Smith, the school project manager at the Jamie Oliver Foundation, urged the Government to make more children eligible for a free meals and for schools to protect quantity and quality. "For those children from lower-income families, a nutritious school meal might be the only hot, nutritious meal they get each day," she said.

"A nutritious meal at lunchtime increases a child's concentration, improves their behaviour in class, and their chances of doing well and achieving their best at school."

A spokeswoman for the Association for Public Service Excellence, which monitors the school meals service, said the major costs for caterers were staffing and overheads such as kitchens, equipment and energy supplies, and these would be targets for cuts rather than portion sizes. However, she added that government grants for school dinners were no longer ring-fenced and had been incorporated into schools' overall budgets, thereby making the meals service less secure.

Canteen culture: the meals system

The system has undergone radical change in recent years. Schools can hire private providers to run their service – or do it themselves. Local authorities have catering services but schools are free to decide whether to buy into them or not.

Since Jamie Oliver's campaign to improve school dinners in 2005, new nutritional standards have outlawed junk food and limited the serving of chips to twice a week.

The standards do set out minimum calories for each age group. But Christine Lewis, of the public service union Unison, which represents school dinner staff, said it had "almost been left on faith with the providers to abide by them". "There is a possibility providers are violating the standards," she added.

To further complicate matters, academies and free schools are exempt from the nutritional standards. Jamie Oliver is now campaigning with teaching unions and other education staff to reverse that decision.

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