Once regarded as a purely functional aspect of the school day, the provision of school food has become a significant focus point in recent years as the importance of a healthy diet among school children becomes more widely appreciated.
Today, it’s a well-established fact that a healthy diet can have an overwhelming impact on the behaviour, concentration and cognitive abilities of children. Research as early as 2006 has suggested that by increasing the provision of healthy school meals, schools across the UK could increase achievement by up to 8% among Key Stage 2 children, and reduce absenteeism by roughly 15% across all age groups.
Crucially, for the UK’s lowest-earning families, school meals can often provide a child’s most important source of healthy food. In 2018, the Food Foundation conducted research which suggested that the government’s Eatwell guide was likely to be unaffordable for families living on a low income. They found that families earning less than £15,860 would need to spend 42% of their income (after housing) on food to meet the Eatwell guidelines.
In fact, research has found that children experiencing food insecurity are at a much higher risk of experiencing a wide range of health issues, from chronic illnesses such as asthma, to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
All of this means that for many children, the only time they have access to a healthy meal may well be during the school day - making it vital to their wellbeing and academic success that this option is readily available.
Yet, while the UK has come a long way to making this a reality, there is still plenty of work left to do. In our latest article, we take a look at the latest developments in school food, and how the latest policies from the government are putting school food back on the agenda.
In February, the government launched their Levelling Up Agenda. This was the first policy document to be released throughout 2022 that mentioned school food, recognising the vital role that it plays in improving educational outcomes and the health and well-being of children across the country.
Publishing the paper, the government said: “Levelling up is a mission to challenge, and change, that unfairness. Levelling up means giving everyone the opportunity to flourish. It means people everywhere are living longer and more fulfilling lives, and benefitting from sustained rises in living standards and well-being.”
The Levelling Up white paper announced for the first time the government’s pledge to ensure that 90% of children will leave primary school having achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and maths by the end of the decade. It's worth noting that, in 2019, just 65% of children achieved this.
Then, a month later, the government followed up with the Opportunities for All white paper. Released in March 2022, the paper set out to clarify the role that the education sector plays in ‘levelling up’ the country.
Not only did the paper reaffirm the government’s intention to improve outcomes for primary school children, it also announced an ambition to see outcomes in secondaries improve as well. This would see an increase in the national GCSE average grade achieved in both English language and in maths from 4.5 in 2019 to 5 by 2030.
Yet both papers recognised that, to achieve these goals, the government needed to work with the education sector to reduce health inequality in the most deprived communities in England.
For instance, the Levelling Up Agenda set the goal that by 2030, the gap in Healthy Life Expectancy (HLE) between local areas where it is highest and lowest will have narrowed, and by 2035 HLE will rise by five years.
As part of their plan to reach this goal, the government pledged to “promote accountability and transparency of school food arrangements” by encouraging schools across the country to publish statements clarifying their whole school approach to food - a task that the government intends to make mandatory when schools are able to do so effectively.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the next food policy announcement was the Government Food Strategy.
This strategy was a response to an independent review carried out by Henry Dimbleby, the co-founder of restaurant chain Leon and a non-executive director of Defra. The purpose of the review was to design a food system that “delivers safe, healthy, affordable food; regardless of where (people) live or how much they earn”.
This, inevitably, means reviewing the approach to school food. For example, the strategy pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic as an important reminder of the role that schools play in delivering healthy and nutritious food to children and families on low incomes.
In response to this, the strategy confirms three crucial points:
“We have made it easier for families to apply for and use the Healthy Start Scheme through digitisation and continue the provision of Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) to all infants in England’s state funded schools, as well as continuing the National School Breakfast Programme (NSBP) for schools in disadvantaged areas.
“We have permanently extended entitlement of free school meals to ‘No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF)’ families and will continue to keep free school meal eligibility under review, to ensure that these meals are supporting those who most need them.
“We have already committed to continue funding the Holiday Activities and Food (HAF) Programme with a £600 million investment over a 3-year period.”
It’s clear that the subject of school food is a critical one, and each and every school around the country has a part to play in ensuring the best possible outcomes for our children.
It’s now more important than ever before that schools are able to take a ‘whole school approach to food’.
This means making sure all staff, students, parents and carers are in the know and on the same page. How do you achieve this? Fortunately, there is plenty that your school can do:
At Pebble, we specialise in helping schools manage their income, and, by doing this, helping pupils too.
We believe that schools have a vital role to play in combating food poverty, and we can provide the right tools to help them do this.
Using our Tali software, schools can create an automated, integrated financial management system that keeps track of balances, payments and allowances, and helps them maximise the benefits of free school meals.
But we also know that effective financial management has to include point of sale too, where pupils interact financially on an individual level with a school’s systems.
The answer? Till.
With Till, you can easily accept online, card or contactless payments, giving your customers the option they prefer. And, by ditching expensive servers and removing those unsightly cables, you can reduce your carbon footprint and improve your school’s sustainability.
Free school meals should support pupils who are disadvantaged, and, by extension, support their families too. The more schools can maximise FSM uptake, the more they are supporting the fight against food poverty.
For more details about our Tali and Till software, please contact the Pebble Team today.
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