In Defence of Liberty

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The School Food Plan

A government report into school meals has recommended that pre-paid dinners should be provided to all primary school pupils and schools should ensure “packed lunches are not a ‘better’ option” than their canteen dinners. Education Secretary Michael Gove commissioned a review into school meals following from criticisms from television chef Jamie Oliver that nutritional exemptions for academies were eroding food standards. Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, two restaurateurs for Leon, published The School Food Plan. Their main proposal gives head teachers powers and responsibilities over their school’s food and to increase take-up of school dinners. Newspaper articles have misrepresented the report’s recommendations, such as the Daily Mirror: “Banning packed lunches and giving free school dinners to all primary pupils are the key recommendations of a top-level review into school food today.”

Can the take-up of school meals be improved? (Photo: Daily Mirror)

Can the take-up of school meals be improved? (Photo: Daily Mirror)

Mr Dimbleby replied on the BBC:

The only thing that people have picked up is this idea of ‘banning packed lunches’. We nowhere in the report do we suggest that the nation should ban packed lunches by law – that would be absolute madness. What we do suggest is that it’s really important that packed lunches, which generally aren’t as healthy, need to be the less exciting option in schools.

It is ultimately up to each school – the report has not called for a nationwide ban. There are certainly great schools, such as Eton, that don’t allow packed lunches. The report does state (pg. 136):

Make sure packed lunches are not a ‘better’ option. Ban sugary drinks, crisps and confectionary, or offer prizes and other incentives for bringing in a healthy lunch. Some schools ban packed lunches outright.

Academies are not eroding standards, as The Children’s Food Trust found (pg. 95) academies “were doing no worse than other secondary schools in complying with the food-based standards at lunch – and sometimes better”.

Soft Drink ‘Speakeasies’

Mr Dimbleby highlights Petchey Academy in Hackney, with teachers and pupils eating together in a collegiate atmosphere. Other schools have been unsuccessful with lunchbox restrictions. Acland Burghley in Camden wanted to improve its pupils’ health by adopting a ‘water-only’ policy. According to the London Evening Standard, pupils set up soft drink ‘speakeasies’ to deliver contraband drinks at inflated prices. Acland Burghley pupil Jake Phillips, 15, said:

There is business potential now there’s a gap in the market. Gangsters sold alcohol in America when that was banned. Prohibition always leads to supply and demand.

Even the universal provision of free school meals does not necessarily improve nutritional standards, as a 2008 University of Hull paper found that: “The free healthy school dinners were not having the desired effect of improving children’s nutritional intake, children chose to eat the foods they liked and left the rest.” This is noted in the report (pg. 96-97) that “children do not always put the right food on their plate” and “children do not always eat what is on their plate”.

Whilst Michael Gove supports universal school meals in principle: funding is the first problem, getting children to want to eat healthily is the second.

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2 comments on “The School Food Plan

  1. phaseboundary
    July 15, 2013

    There is an absolutely critical part of this which has been ignored so far; the availability of catering. Some schools do not have kitchens (in the interest of “efficiency” and “freedom from regulation”), and others would struggle to provide for all students. While in principle I would welcome this proposal, I see it being very difficult to implement.

    • Anthony Masters
      July 15, 2013

      Yes, I should have included that in my article. The funding difficulties for small schools, who will struggle to make their meals system profitable, is considered in Chapter 9 of the report.
      It is ultimately up to parents whether they want their children to eat the school-provided meal, but some of the more restrictive proposals may not be successful.

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