Laurel Park School in Palmers Green, North London, cares about its school food and serves up freshly made meals containing incredible produce – this is not simply to fuel the future but because for some students, it will be the only meal they eat each day.
Around 35% of students are eligible for free school meals but a much higher proportion struggle to afford the daily £3 cost of lunch. A recent survey carried out with students and parents found that 74% of students have shared a meal with a friend because they could not afford to eat it, and 67% of parents who pay for school meals say they struggle to find the money.
Unlike many schools, Laurel Park makes it a priority not to refuse students a hot meal even if their lunch payments are in arrears. “As far as I’m concerned that could be their only meal of the day,” says the school’s deputy head Carrie Bignell.
Led by its new Headteacher – Adele Christofi, Laurel Park has prioritised putting food at the heart of an ongoing transformation in the school’s culture and performance. Previously known as Broomfield School, the school was judged as ‘requires improvement’ by Ofsted during the Covid-19 pandemic and developed a negative reputation among local parents.
From September, it has rebranded as Laurel Park School, a move that is “about more than giving the school a new name and a lick of paint”, according to Miss Bignell. “Part of the rebrand was all about marketing the school in a different way, including the fact that we have a very unique school meal offer,” she explains.
The school, which has always run its own in-house catering service, first partnered with the charity Chefs in Schools in 2021. It subsequently recruited a head chef. The school food offer has since been transformed: gone are the juice drinks, ultra-processed foods and unhealthy snacks that used to dominate sales. In their place are freshly prepared hot meals and salads made with seasonal ingredients.
Establishing a new food culture has meant not just changing the menu but looking afresh at the entire food provision. The layout of the old canteen – now rebranded as the Bay Leaf restaurant – has been changed to make it a calmer, more pleasant eating environment. “In our old canteen the kids came in and queued up in four lines,” Miss Bignell explains. “There were two snacks and sandwich lines and two hot food lines; there was lots of jostling and it just wasn’t a very nice environment. A lot of the kids were coming out with five juice cartons and that was their lunch.”
The layout has been revamped so that hot food and salad bars are prioritised and sandwiches, while still available, are not on display. For £3, the students get a freshly prepared hot meal, their choice from the salad bar plus a dessert.
Other initiatives have also helped change the perception of the mealtime experience. Staff who eat with the students are now entitled to a free meal. “It means you have students and staff sitting down together at a table, without digital devices, having conversations,” says Miss Bignell.
Miss Bignell believes it has had a positive effect on the students’ learning and behaviour. “We have hardly any behaviour issues at lunchtime now, whereas before we have had fights in the canteen,” she says.
For many Laurel Park students, school lunch is the only hot meal they are guaranteed to get each day. “I’ve got kids who are going home to an empty house,” says Miss Bignell. “No one is going to cook them dinner.”
That’s part of the reason why the school is determined that children who need a hot meal will get one. says Miss Bignell. “I’m sure there are kids in every school who actively avoid the canteen because they don’t have enough money,” says Miss Bignell.
It’s also why she believes funding for free school meal provision should extend to all secondary age children.
The school’s recent survey showed that 84% of parents whose child currently has a packed lunch would encourage them to have a school lunch if it were free, rising to 100% for parents who give their children money to buy food on the way to school.
Miss Bignell cautions however that a free school meals policy of itself would not be enough to improve eating habits in secondary education.
Miss Bignell says freshly prepared meals, such as those served at Laurel Park, can be cost effective to produce when the ingredients are bought and prepared in bulk. Working with Chefs in Schools also means Laurel Park benefits from the collective buying power that an individual school does not possess.
The price of a meal covers everything aside from staffing costs, and with around half the students already eating school meals Miss Bignell ultimately wants to be in a position to offer a free lunch to everyone. “My big thing is that kids need to be treated equally and that means having access to school meals. Hunger impacts on a child’s learning – you can always tell when a child hasn’t had lunch. We’re passionate about feeding the future here and ensuring all children have a chance to learn.”