At a time when the cost of school lunch has become increasingly unaffordable for many families, the Mayor of London’s decision to offer free school meals to all primary-age children has been transformational for schools in the capital.

Woodmansterne School in Lambeth, south London, has recently taken the decision to ban packed lunches for children attending its primary school, meaning every child is now guaranteed a freshly prepared, nutritious hot meal.

The policy wouldn’t have been possible under the old eligibility-based free school meals system, but headteacher Samantha Palin says its adoption since universal access came into effect in September has delivered immediate benefits for the children’s health and wellbeing. “It’s given us an opportunity to encourage good eating habits and build an understanding among the children about how eating that nutritious food makes them feel for the rest of the day,” she says.

Good food was already baked into the culture at Woodmansterne whose 1,600 pupils span nursery-age children to sixth formers. Executive head chef Jake Taylor and his team prepare everything fresh from scratch. Fruit and vegetables are sourced from local suppliers such as Natoora and children are constantly exposed to new flavours and textures through a salad bar that changes with the seasons.

Taylor explains that the dishes are those familiar to children – pastas, curries and the like – but prepared in a way that elevates them beyond regular school food. If the chefs are preparing a curry they will make their own naans, chutneys and raitas. Fish and chips might be accompanied by pickles and house-made beetroot ketchup.

Chefs regularly come out of the kitchen and talk to the children about the food, answer their questions and listen to their feedback. Staff, meanwhile, are much more likely to sit down and eat meals alongside the students since Taylor came on board in 2019 as part of a partnership between Woodmansterne and the Chefs in Schools charity.

Food is also incorporated into the curriculum at every opportunity; history lessons might involve chefs preparing meals from foods that would have been rationed during World War II.

“I’ve worked in several schools and this is the only one where the children talk knowledgeably about food and nutrition and there’s an interest and excitement about food,” says Palin. “Candidates for new posts have often heard about the food which tells me that the culture has evolved over time and is now quite powerful,” she adds.

Around 20% of Woodmansterne pupils were eligible for free school meals under the old system. As such, Palin says the Mayor’s universal policy “has been a real godsend” and it would be “a phenomenal move” to extend free access to all secondary school pupils. “The long term benefits for the NHS and long-term eating habits of feeding children nutritional food until the age of 18 would be incredibly significant.”

She is acutely aware however that many children moving from Year 6 to Year 7 will lose their eligibility for a free hot meal every day. And while Palin is confident many will stick with school meals, “there will undoubtedly be parents that decide they can save a bit of money if they go back to a packed lunch”.

For a number of years Woodmansterne has raised money and subsidised meals to ensure children don’t suffer from a system that leaves many parents unable to afford a hot meal despite being ineligible for free access. The school runs a community deli every fortnight for which the chefs prepare fresh sourdough bread, pastries and other foods to sell to parents and members of the community with the profits going into a hardship fund. Some more affluent parents of primary-age children have also offered to carry on paying for meals so that the extra money can go into the fund.

Mealtimes are organised in a way that ensures those eligible for free school meals are not identifiable to their peers thus avoiding the risk of stigma and discrimination. Midday meal supervisors are encouraged to recognise children who are showing signs of hunger – such as wolfing down their food quickly – and ensure they get extra food if they need it. “It’s all done in a really sensitive, subtle way,” says Palin.

It’s notoriously difficult to show causality between the food children eat at school and their academic achievement but, anecdotally, Palin believes the good food culture Woodmansterne has nurtured over recent years has had a positive effect. “Our last two years of (attainment) data at primary level have been significantly above the national average. That’s never down to just one thing but I’d love to think it’s in part due to the food.”

Palin has also noticed a difference in the children’s behaviour. “Last year we lost access to our school field and so the children were having to play in quite a restricted space. In a normal school, particularly a primary school, you’d have expected to see a spike in accidents and fights between kids because of that constrained space but we didn’t see that. I think that was directly impacted by the positive atmosphere and environment in the school lunch hall, but also because the children are not being fed with lots of sugar and ‘E-numbers’.”

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