School Food

July saw the launch of the  School Food Plan for England, which was co-authored by John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby. It was a good report. But the most surprising aspect  was the recommendation to provide universal free school meals to all primary school children.

Having done a bit of research on the subject, I am very much in favour of this policy. However, I never imagined the one and only recommendation of this report would be to advocate for universal free school meals. This is fantastic! Shame the government does not share my enthusiasm.

But there was very little news in what I did read: Not enough school children are getting adequate nutrition at lunchtime in English schools. School cooks are underrated and required to do far too much with too little training or inadequate support. Headteachers need to get behind the whole school approach in order to give the entire team (teachers, school caterers, students, parents) the lift it needs to get good food in young bellies. Standards are vital to ensure adequate nutrition is on offer and schools must adhere to and enforce the regulations.

At a time when use of food banks is on the rise, and more and more families are feeling the effects of rising food prices, it seems very relevant to reignite the discussion about school food. But the questions around the thorny issue of universal free school meals are: What is their purpose? Who needs them? What difference will they make?

To my mind, the answer to all of the above is blindingly obvious. Universality allows for all children in state schools in England to be adequately nourished, equally. The Nutrition Standards for school food in England were put in place based on sound evidence. The benefits of this evidence can only be achieved if they are applied universally. Pilots have shown universal free school meals reduce health inequalities, and improving health outcomes is good for everyone. And there are all the family-friendly jobs such a policy would create, even better if a living wage could be implemented, but I digress slightly.

One argument against universal free school meal policy is that it involves spending state money on children whose parents can afford to feed them. What has slipped under the radar is that, despite the label, universal free school meals (UFSM) is a targeted benefit because the policy would not apply to all children in England; those being educated in the independent school sector (roughly 500,000) would be excluded. The reality is that UFSM is a benefit in kind–food in the mouths of children as opposed to money in parent’s pockets–which was designed to flow into households where it is most needed, yet there is research which shows that the complex system of qualifying criteria prevents this very thing from happening. The system needs to be simplified, via universality, to allow the safety net to extend to all those who need it. This leads to an uncomfortable truth: if a child is in a state school in England, that is eligibility criteria enough.

The Plan went further than I hoped but, if you look at it in the context of the history of school food in England, there is a fair bit of repetition. We have been here before and the debate may well continue to go round and round, unless the one thing that has never been done, is done.

To that end, I have a something-I-made-earlier potted history of school meals in England up to 2005, because it is interesting to consider where we are at in light of where we have been.

The beginning
The UK was one of the first countries to embark on a scheme for national provision of school meals, started in 1906, though this service lagged some 36 years behind the introduction of compulsory education in 1870.

The practice of feeding children at school became linked to compulsory education due to mounting concerns over children’s health and teacher’s complaints that hungry children could not learn. Attendance at school was in and of itself part of the problem since, prior to this, children from low-income families would have contributed to the finances of the family. Schooling a child often meant less income, therefore less food at home.

However, the central catalyst for school feeding in the UK was a report published in 1904 by the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration. Amongst its findings, it revealed a sorry state of affairs:

33 per cent of all children were under-nourished in the sense that they actually went hungry…It was no surprise to find that at the beginning of this century [1900] twelve-year-old boys at private schools were, on average, five inches taller than those in council schools.

In 1904, knowledge of nutrition, even recognition of nutrition as a science, was in its infancy thus the report was not commissioned due to government concerns over national nutrient intake. It was carried out because recruits for the Boer War had been found to be too physically unfit for conscription in the Army. The findings revealed the dismal state of national health due to years of poverty and related illnesses.

In his excellent book, Hunger, James Vernon points out that amongst its recommendations, the 1904 report suggested school meals as a means for ‘rearing an imperial race’ (or at least preventing its further physical and mental degeneration). The first government guidelines for school meals were put in place in 1906 with the Education (Provision of Meals) Act. It was warfare, not welfare, which gave rise to school meals.

Between 1906 and 1940, there was no further policy intervention. In 1941, the first nutritional standards for school meals were established and these indicated the levels of protein, fat and calories to be provided by school meals. This renewed attention to school meals coincided with the onset on the Second World War, once again, linking national feeding plans with national defence.

A Strong Lead from Government
The 1944 Education Act put a duty on LEAs to provide school meals and this Act represented a shift from a service which provided for poor children to one which provided meals based on nutritional guidelines for all children.  It was still wartime and the political climate was favourable for a policy which offered provision of school meals to the largest number of children. Central government took responsibility both for achieving this objective and for funding the majority of the costs involved.

After the war, the welfare system in England was reformed along more universalist lines, particularly with regard to universal access to education and health. The reforms were outlined in the Beveridge Report, written by William Beveridge, father of the post-World War II British welfare state. In estimating cash allowances for the 1947 Family Allowance scheme, Beveridge had assumed the school meal service would become a universal benefit and made his estimates in anticipation of what he believed would be offered as benefits in kind.

It was nutrition which allowed Beveridge to make this assumption. More precisely, the establishment of a nutritional base was perceived to be of benefit to all children regardless of family income. Universality seemed inevitable because adequate nutrition was seen to be of national benefit as well as a natural extension of the compulsory national education service.

However, school meals as a universal benefit was never realised, and school food policy remained untouched until the nutrition standards were revised in 1966 and then again in 1975 when some food-based standards were introduced.

The Milk Snatching Years
In 1979, Margaret Thatcher won the general election and, as Prime Minister, implemented a series of financial and political initiatives designed to pull the country out of recession and increase employment. The effects of these changes were devestating for school meal policy.

The 1980 Education Act reversed the policy of the previous forty years. Under this act, LEAs were henceforth only obliged to provide meals for children in receipt of free school meals (FSMs). It also removed the obligation to sell meals at a fixed price, the entitlement to free milk and nutrition standards were abolished.

FSM policy was tailored further when measures to reduce eligibility were enacted via the 1986 Social Security Act, which changed the entitlement criteria. As a result, the total number of children eligible for receipt of FSM was reduced by 400,000.

In 1988, Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT) was introduced for public sector catering, which dealt a further blow to the quality of school meals. This opened tendering for school food to outside competition in order to keep costs at a minimum. CCT established a service where economy trumped quality. It transformed school catering into a commercial service, based on cheap food and choice.

This hacking away was justified, in part, by a belief that, at the time, these services were no longer required because deprivation, in the form of poverty and hunger, was a thing of the past.

The cumulative effect of all these reforms resulted in the dismantling of the traditional school meal services. The consequence was an unregulated school meals market and an environment that fostered unhealthy eating.

The Need for Standards
The lack of any comprehensive population-based nutritional surveys at that time meant there was no evidence to support the continuation of school meals on health grounds, however a survey of the nutritional intakes of school aged children was instigated by the Department of Health and Social Security following the removal of school meal standards. It was called The Diets of British Schoolchildren and reported in 1988. It indicated that children’s nutritional intake was inadequate.

In 1992, the Caroline Walker Trust (CWT), a public health nutrition charity, published guidelines for school meals  which offered a nutritional framework for providing healthy meals. Recommended nutrient contents of an average school meal for children over a period of one week were given and these were expressed in terms of Dietary Reference Values (DRV). Lobbying around these standards continued throughout the 1990’s. The Labour Party in opposition promised to consider the introduction of better standards in schools and went to consultation around food-based and nutrient-based standards in 2000.

The Education (Nutritional Standards for School Lunches) Regulations were introduced in 2000 and this marked the beginning of an effort to reinstate guidelines for school food. In 2002, eligibility criteria for FSM was extended to allow increased numbers of children access to school meals. Between 2000 and 2005, continuous efforts were made to improve the quality of food in school on the part of campaigning and research groups including the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), the CWT, the Health Education Trust and The Soil Association.

In October 2005, the School Meals Review Panel (SMRP), a specially convened panel of experts, published the results of its enquiry into school lunches and other issues related to food in schools in a report entitled Turning the Tables. The SMRP held government responsible for what it called a “public policy failure” over school food, citing financial pressures and the fragmentation of school catering, together with a lack of strict standards” as the main reasons for the decline.

A year later, in September 2006, legislation for the new school food standards was put in place, based on the recommendations of the SMRP. The new standards had two components: food-based and nutrient-based standards. The food-based standards restrict or prohibit certain items (such as fizzy drinks and fried foods). The nutrient-based standards ensure the menu cycle provides adequate nutrients. These two-tiered standards were phased in over a three-year period, from 2006-2009, to allow schools time to implement the necessary changes.

Did Standards Work?
Looking to assess the impact of nutritional standards on school meals, one study analysed the findings of the 1997 National Diet and Nutrition Survey of Young People aged 4-18 (NDNS) and compared them with food consumption data collected in 2004-5 from English primary and secondary school children. What the report found was that school meals were making matters worse rather than better.

By assessing the foods eaten both in and out of school, the report showed that school meals have the potential to impact on the total nutrient intake of children but that school meals were failing to deliver improved outcomes. The report pointed out that children, like adults, will often go for the less healthy option when presented with the opportunity to choose and that schools were failing to adequately promote the healthy choices. The standards depend on the menu cycle to create a framework which supports healthy eating but, when choice is offered, the menu cycle cannot be enforced, thus the widening of choice at lunchtime was seen as the main barrier.

Amongst the 35 policy recommendations for school food reform in England outlined in the Turning the Tables report, choice control was considered central to the principle of ensuring healthy eating outcomes, however this was not a new concept. Many years prior, the 1980 Black Report, entitled Inequalities in Health, stressed the importance of nutritious school meals for children and stated:

…to leave school children, especially young school children to make their own free choices of a meal would be wrong. This would be likely to lead to increases in obesity and dental caries.

The War on Waistlines
It took some time before awareness of rising obesity levels once again raised the issue of school food in England and in other developed nations, including America. As Janet Poppendieck wrote in her 2009 book Free for All, on the subject of school food in America, “ It is not hunger… but childhood obesity that has put school food on the national radar screen.” The same can be said for the UK. Worldwide obesity is a contemporary problem which has been raised to ‘epidemic’ proportions.

Where obesity is particularly relevant to a discussion of school meals provision is in economic considerations. The epidemic nature of the problem suggests it is widespread and treating obesity and obesity-related diseases is expensive. The total cost to the UK in 2002 was  £3.3-3.7 billion and it is estimated to increase to £45.5 billion by 2050.

The school meal standards in England were not driven by obesity at the outset but they became so as more media focus was given to the issue. This was fuelled primarily by the attention gained from Jamie Oliver’s Feed Me Better campaign, which was linked to the 2005 television series Jamie’s School Dinners, however the change in attitudes which led to the establishment of the SMRP preceded the television show. Campaigning and research work around the health implications of school meals had been accumulating since the 1990s. The campaign by the celebrity chef brought school meals policy to the foreground in terms of public opinion and this was a powerful and significant occurrence in the school meals arena.

Give Us Back Our Chips
Initial reactions to the changes in school food standards were mixed. Criticism of the nutritional standards took the form of withdrawl from the system. There were reports of parents feeding children illicitly at lunchtime. In 2006, two South Yorkshire mothers began their own meal service, which led to some iconic newspaper images of mothers feeding children through the school fence.

More conventional parents protested by simply shifting to packed lunches. This situation put pressure on school caterers, which lead to interpretation of the standards by some in order to maintain numbers at lunchtime.

A migration has occurred from ‘healthy’ school meals to packed lunches of poor nutritional quality in some areas. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some schools comply with healthy eating requirements by offering a small number of portions of the healthy option with large amounts of the unhealthy, popular, option (eg, chips).”

These reactions demonstrate the consequence of regulations to control choice. Establishing nutrition standards can be interpreted as the state interferring, in a negative way. To limit and/or ban the availability of items in school, in this instance, unhealthy food, was seen as limiting freedom of choice, or acting as a ‘nanny state’.

Whose job is it?
The 21st century government response to rising awareness of diet-related ill health issues took the form of nutritional standards for school food, which implied that young people (and by inference, their parents) were unable to make good choices about healthy eating. A departure from the 1906 attitude linked more directly to poverty, this stance was informed by the SMRP report which stated that there is both a public and a private responsibility to ensure that children are adequately fed.”

Although Turning the Tables is a contemporary report, it echoed many of the same concerns which gave rise to school feeding in England at the turn of the last century. Health and welfare are clearly linked throughout and government nutrition standards for school food are intended as a benefit for all children, as vulnerable citizens. Concerns for food in the curriculum, sustainability and the socio-economic benefits of jobs in the school food sector figure prominently in the report, reflecting modern concerns and are thus a departure from earlier policy. However this wide net cast over the potential of school food to benefit not only schoolchildren but the community as a whole served to emphasise the even greater benefits which could be offered if school food provision was made available to the largest number of children.

The first standards introduced in 1941 were based on the wartime rationing model of set nutritional standards and menus and, most importantly, a baseline of equity in food distribution. At that time, school meals policy was universal in intention, if not universal in delivery which can be seen as part of a wider move to develop government support for the family.

Setting standards to improve nutrition were integral to the welfare goals which drove school meals from the outset and this was motivated by the ambition to support rather than to interfere. In 1906, and again in 1941, it was acceptable for the state to put in place a system which provided increased access to adequate nutrition for the largest number of children. At these points in time, albeit against a backdrop of war, sustaining the health of the nation was not seen as a disservice.

In 2005 the SMRP stated: “…school meals are an essential public service, no less important today than when they were introduced at the beginning of the last century.”

In 2013, the words ‘poverty’ and ‘hunger’, words which helped launch the school meals service, conjure up images of faraway places and a distant past. But have these things faded, or is it the political will to confront them–as a peacetime domestic issue–that is absent.


Burnett, J (1966), Plenty & Want: A social history of diet in England from 1815 to the present day, Scolar Press, London.

Edwards, K. L., Clarke, G. P., Ransley, J. K., Cade, J., (2010) The neighbourhood matters: studying exposures relevant to childhood obesity and the policy implications in Leeds, UK, Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, vol 64, pp 194-201.

Evans, C.E.L., Harper, C.E. (2009) A History and Review of School Meal Standards in the UK, Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, Vol 22:2 p 89-99

Goldthorpe, Anne (1986), The school meals service: a necessity or a luxury good?, Journal of Education Policy, 1:3, pp 213-227

Morelli , C. and Seaman, P., 2005, Universal versus targeted benefits: the distributional effects of free school meals, Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, Vol 23, pp 583-598.

Vernon, J., 2007, Hunger: a modern history, Cambridge Massachusetts: The Belknap Press.



  1. Laura, thanks for this and your comment on the School Plan which I read through on the train yesterday. I couldn’t agree more than that attending a state school should be an eligibility criterion enough to receive a free school meal. I am about to embark on some new food/diet writing myself in September – a book now agreed with a publisher which I expect to be immersed in for the next couple of years. Lots of love Pam

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