Foodservice forum: Free school meals

Last week, we asked our panel of experts: What more do you think could be done to help children living in poverty get meals during school holidays?

Patricia Fellows
Contract Catering education expert

There is no doubt that child poverty has increased during the Covid 19 pandemic and will continue to do so now we are in our second lockdown. It has been uplifting to see the 23-year-old football star Marcus Rashford campaigning that no child should go hungry. More than 1m people have signed his petition to government. It requested an extension to all children whose parents are in receipt of Universal Credit to be entitled to a free school meal in term time and that this provision should be extended to school holidays.

In my opinion the ‘solution’ should not be vouchers to spend in supermarkets as it was during the summer holiday. This system caused a number of problems. The government let the contract and the provider had problems with its computer system; some parents did their shopping and when they got to the checkout the vouchers were refused for payment. Sadly, some parents did not spend the vouchers on nutritious food. It was also very expensive and cost the taxpayers millions.

Half term has gone with no holiday provision from government but lots of ad hoc local arrangements set up by well-meaning people. It is true to say that there has been holiday provision during school holidays in some areas for the past few years, but it is fragmented and patchy. I believe that it is time for a structured approach to be introduced.

It is now time for action for the Christmas holidays, although the government has not indicated whether it intends to implement this provision. The Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA) is in discussions with the Department of Education (DfE) and has made a proposal [see next page] that children entitled to benefit from free school meals during term time should be provided with a food parcel for two weeks at the end of term distributed by the school. LACA has already produced a list of nutritious products and ingredients for these parcels which the DfE and the Department of Health have endorsed.

I believe that this is a practical solution that will be really easy to administer, as all head teachers and schools know which children would be entitled. The necessary finances could be delegated to the schools by the government. All these children across the country would receive similar parcels and there would be relatively few on costs. I do hope that the government gives this practical solution serious consideration.

Stop press: Boris Johnson said on 4th November at Prime Minister’s Questions that this government will ensure that no child goes hungry this Christmas.

Meg Longworth

Director of nutrition and sustainability, Chartwells

We know that school meals provide some children with their only meal of the day. This means for many families across the UK, school holidays are a real challenge. We also know that a good healthy diet helps with educational attainment, as well as general health and wellbeing, so it is critical that young people have access to healthy food.

Marcus Rashford’s campaign has created a platform to raise awareness of important issues around child poverty. We fully support the campaign and are keen to work with them on the provision of school meals, as this is an area that can make a huge difference to young lives.

While there has been a lot of discussion around the provision of free school meals during holidays recently, for some time we have been focused on encouraging the take up of nutritious meals and working with our partners during school holidays to support children. I believe there needs be a wider focus on the meals themselves, instead of the provision of shopping vouchers, for example.

In 2018 we launched a dedicated health and wellbeing programme, Beyond the Chartwells Kitchen, which helps tackle issues around childhood wellbeing. As part of this there was a focus on holiday provision and since then we’ve provided many children across the UK, including 13,000 in Lewisham alone, with school food compliant meals during holidays; partnered with more than 30 charities to help support vulnerable children; reached 4,000 young people in school breaks with education and information; and trained around 70 holiday lunch club volunteers to help families in need.

Looking ahead to Christmas, we know more than ever needs to be done and we will continue to provide resources, including our hampers and educational tools. The last few months has seen us develop all our teaching materials into accessible online and virtual versions, which we share with holiday clubs and the charities we work with. The combination of providing meals and education is helping children with the immediate access to food, but also supporting their long-term attitude to health and diet, and we will continue working with our clients and partners to support some of the most vulnerable families in the UK.


LACA spokesperson

LACA – The School Food People, who represent school caterers working on the frontline, have written to the prime minister urging him to use our members’ infrastructure and supply chain to provide food parcels to children during the holidays.

LACA has worked with the DfE and Public Health England on guidance to ensure that food parcels delivered to children in self-isolation are healthy and nutritious. Our members across the country have been providing thousands of these food parcels on a daily basis.

In order to target the most vulnerable children, we urge the government to extend free school meal food parcels during the holidays, guaranteeing they receive healthy and nutritious meals.