We welcome the recommendations laid out in the National Food Strategy, Part 2. If adopted by the Government, society will reap the benefits of improving the health and sustainability of the nation. The report recognises the need to invest upfront in the health and wellbeing of children, and the key role that food education plays in this. For decades, school food has been seen as a necessary, but burdensome, cost to reduce, rather than a vital intervention in child health and education. The pandemic highlighted the poor school food some children are expected to eat. The National Food Strategy is clear, it’s time to recognise how important school food is as an intervention. It’s time to stop talking and start bringing about change.

We would urge the Government to adopt the following recommendations without delay:

Expanding eligibility for free school meals.

Why do we support this?

Simply put, too many children are at risk of going hungry or are living with hunger. They will fall behind their peers as a result. The recommendations call for the earnings threshold for eligibility to increase from £7,500 to £20,000 – and to include 16 to 18 year olds, plus children whose parents have no recourse to public funds. This would see around 1.1m additional children receive a free school meal. It would be a step in the right direction to ensure no child is too hungry to learn. 

Launch an ‘Eat and Learn’ initiative in schools.

Why do we support this?

Despite efforts in the School Food Plan leading to the reintroduction of cooking to the curriculum, this is still often a half-hearted effort. In schools where food is prioritised by Headteachers, we see great efforts to offer creative and innovative cooking lessons that inspire children – but for many schools, food is not seen as a vital life skill to pass on. By introducing education in early years settings and continuing this through to A-Level, the Government will set the tone that food is a key part of the skills all children should leave school with, in addition to a great career opportunity after school ends. This is vital to shaping future generations’ approach to eating, it will teach them to feed themselves well and go some way to reverse the decades long decline in home-grown chefs coming into industry.

Continued provision of HAF programmes for another three years.

Why do we support this?

Hungry children don’t learn or thrive. This is not a problem that stops at the school gate or when term ends. This is about fairness and equality for children. Providing activities and food in the holidays to children eligible for free school meals is a vital step to combat food inequality and to increase social mobility.

Mandatory training for kitchen teams in child nutrition and school food standards.  

Why do we support this?

Training is a priority for other professions in a school – there are five inset days a year. But the kitchen workforce often only receives the bare legal minimum in safety training. There is no official qualification for school kitchen staff. Too often school food can be poor quality, processed, made using shortcuts, circumventing or ignoring entirely the school food standards. Basic training that teaches the school food standards, nutritional know-how and kitchen skills is long overdue. This, mostly female, mostly low-paid workforce, who helped keep the country running and children fed during the pandemic, are deserving of investment and the opportunity to learn new skills. As we move towards recognising the important role school food can play, we must invest in the people delivering it.

Mandatory quality certification scheme for schools. 

Why do we support this?

The 2019 State of the Nation report from Food for Life found that at least 60% of secondary schools in the UK fail to comply with school food standards. We see real life examples of this every day in the schools who invite us to help them turn things around. School leaders aren’t empowered to tackle this. Monitoring and enforcing the standards we already have in place will help lift quality nationwide and ensure that food is rightly seen as a priority to focus on. It is essential that schools are serving up nutritious food that enables children to concentrate in class. Requiring schools to have clear accountability will empower them to hold contractors to account also.

Strengthening procurement standards for food in schools.

Why do we support this?

All too often, when food services are being sought out by schools, price comes first and far above nutrition and the environment. Unlike in hospitals and prisons – there are no minimum standards for the ingredients purchased – for example, requirements to buy some produce locally, to ensure it is well reared and of a certain quality, to ensure levels of sustainability. In the procurement of produce for school food, too often the focus is on reducing costs further, rather than prioritising the standard of food children are eating. By mandating a minimum standard, the public sector can ensure that quality, nutrition and child health comes first. 

As things stand, in 2021, there is a vast inequality and unfairness when it comes to the food and food education children receive in schools. Despite billions of pounds of public money being spent, we’ve ended up with a fragmented system where too many children miss out every day, either excluded from the system entirely due to cost, or served up inedible food made with low cost, hyper-processed ingredients. Too often we meet schools who feel trapped within this system, not empowered or enabled to choose better for their schools, despite wanting to. It is vital that we have minimum standards that ensure a level playing field and that all parents and children are able to opt into. Every child should get to eat good food that nourishes them during the school day – hungry kids won’t learn or thrive. Most importantly, every child should leave school knowing how to feed themselves and their families well, empowered with the knowledge to make choices that will improve their health and long-term life chances. By focusing on fuelling the future, the National Food Strategy sets out a bold stall, investing in the health of future generations now, for the benefit of all society. By accepting these recommendations, the Government will be signalling a commitment to fuelling the future, and fuelling it well.