Free school meals are good, but healthy, well-served free school meals are even better

If we want more children eating in our canteens, schools have got to have the infrastructure to serve them well and headteachers must get on board

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Putting the debate about universality aside for one moment (and there’s a lot of it today), if we’re going to offer free school meals for all under-eights, there’s a crucial point that isn’t getting much of a look-in. To make this work well; to make sure we actually reap all the benefits of what good food at school can do for children’s attainment and diet, the school meal experience has got to be a good one. If we want all families to take this up, and not simply stick with the same packed lunch every day, the lunchtime their school offers has to be one they want their kids to have.

Lots of schools are doing a great job already: the number of families opting for school meals has been rising, thanks to the hard work since Jamie Oliver’s manifesto, the rollout of national school food standards and more support to help schools up their game.  

But some are still struggling, as the new national School Food Plan highlighted in July. They still need help to get their lunchtimes to where they need to be. So what will make sure this policy delivers?

It’s about good food, first and foremost. Meals that taste good; look good and smell good. Sounds obvious, but it’s still a challenge for some schools, even despite the improvements of the last eight years. And that’s got to be underpinned by decent kitchen facilities - so staff can deliver that great food efficiently. Not all primary schools have their own kitchens, and most of the schools who come to us for help are having problems with ageing equipment or kitchens which are too small or poorly laid-out. If we want more children eating in our canteens, schools have got to have the infrastructure to serve them well.

It’s about a pleasant place to eat. Research shows that what’s often more important to children is where they eat, rather than what they eat. Put another way, if they have to queue for their meal or have to sit around a cramped table, or if the dining room’s a noisy, smelly place, they simply won’t want to eat there. And with more children likely to be taking up school meals if they’re free, space will be a fundamental issue. Schools will need help to get creative - there are ways to create a great dining space and accommodate more children without spending a lot, but it takes thought and planning.

It’s about giving kids enough time to eat rather than having to rush their meal. Research has found that nearly a quarter of teachers across all schools (23 per cent) had seen lunchtime get shorter at their school in the last few years. You can understand the dilemma for a seven year-old: waiting ten minutes longer to eat by queuing up for a healthy school meal, or getting ten minutes more in the playground by wolfing down a quick sarnie from home – no contest. The youngest children often need more time to get through their food, so helping schools make their dining spaces work better and to use pre-ordering systems will be vital. 

But the yeast in this dough isn’t a something, it’s a someone: the headteacher. As the School Food Plan noted: “….if the head isn’t behind changing the food culture in a school, it won’t happen.” Families will only take up these free school meals if the experience on offer is a good one; creating that experience starts with supporting headteachers.

Linda Cregan is Chief Executive of the Children’s Food Trust www.childrensfoodtrust.org.uk  

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