This September every child in reception, Year 1 and Year 2 of primary schools will, by law, be entitled to a free school meal. The only exception to this rule is children attending direct grant nursery schools, independent schools, general hospital schools and maintained nursery schools.
Improving academic standards and saving families money
The aim behind this government incentive is to offer young children a healthy, nutritious and hot meal every school day. Hunger has been shown to affect concentration and in pilot schemes where children have been given a free quality lunch packed with nutrients, results have shown improved academic achievement. They have also seen positive improvements in health and social cohesion. This was most marked amongst children from low-income areas.
Another reason for introducing the Universal Infants Free School Meals (UIFSM) initiative is to save families money. Typically around £440 per year is spent per child on school lunches. In particular this scheme should help parents who are on lower incomes but whose children do not currently qualify for free school dinners because they don’t receive benefits or tax credits. Those children of all ages already receiving free school meals will continue to receive them.
This sounds like a great idea in principle, but the question is, will it work?
Local councils are already juggling very tight budgets and having to make cuts to key services. In Leeds, council bosses estimate that there will be a 20% increase in the uptake of school meals. This translates as a total food bill for fresh and frozen food of around £3million. The Government is providing funding to help schools prepare for the increase in demand, such as kitchen improvements and additional staff. Schools will also receive £2.30 per meal for each child who is registered for UIFSM.
The worry is that, whilst by law every eligible child under the age of 7 is entitled to a free school meal, schools and councils might miss out because in order to receive the £2.30 funding parents must register their child. If they don’t register, the school will not receive the maximum Pupil Premium allocation for that year, which could potentially leave them thousands of pounds out of pocket.
It could also mean that they need to dip into budgets for other areas such as improvement and maintenance in order to satisfy demand. Furthermore school kitchens will need to be creative with the provision of the meals, which must meet school food standards for nutrition.
Recommendations echo ‘Healthy Eating in Schools’ by Verner Wheelock
It is hoped that the UIFSM programme will encourage take-up form those pupils who currently bring packed lunches to eat at lunchtime, since just 1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards of school lunches.
The recommendations published by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent in their publication The School Food Plan and adopted by the Government into the UIFSM scheme echo the findings of case studies published in Verner Wheelock’s book ‘Healthy Eating in Schools.’ Encouraging young children to grow fruit and vegetables, cook them and eat them and understand where food comes from and offering healthy choices at mealtimes all helps to improve concentration, social skills and academic achievement. In the pilot studies for UIFSM students were found to be on average two months ahead of their peers elsewhere.
Vital that school catering staff understand nutrition
Of course, in order to provide healthy meals, school catering staff need to understand nutrition. One of the best starting points is online nutrition course and, of course, basic Food Safety – a legal requirement for all involved in the preparation and service of food.
Two NEW advanced level RSPH nutrition courses from Verner Wheelock are also available and designed specifically to help school caterers to achieve the optimum in healthy meals. They are:
The RSPH Level 4 Award in Nutrition which covers the nutritional requirements for a healthy diet, the effect of diet on health and the importance of hydration. The next course will be held at Verner Wheelock’s training facility in Skipton in October – please call for details.
The RSPH Level 4 Certificate in Nutrition for Institutional Food Service course takes place in November. This course is of particular relevance to school meal caterers as well as those working in colleges or healthcare catering. It not only covers nutrition and diet but also applies those principles to fulfil the dietary requirements of pupils or patients.
For more information on all these courses, please click the links above or call 01756 700802.