The School Food Trust Is Irrelevant – So What’s Next?

Farm potatoes for dinner

The thin end of the wedge for school dinners?

The recent revelation that a third of academies are selling junk food comes as no surprise to those of us who have seen the pendulum swing back and forwards over the last few years when it comes to standards in school food.

While most heads want a tasty, inclusive offer that is cooked fresh daily from locally sourced, good quality ingredients and served by people who love food the options often veer between junk and food so bland no one wants to eat it. There’s no doubt that when Jamie Oliver came along there was so much wrong: senior management teams in schools turned a blind eye to the poor standards of food and service and local government caterers were poorly managed and did not train staff in basic craft skills or customer service. This resulted in very large contract caterers making vast profits from what was a broadly unregulated activity. The children suffered.

As a direct result of Jamie Oliver intervening in what admittedly was an extremely poor offer in many schools the School Food Trust was set up. The trouble was it went too far, far too quickly from the 1p sausage to unseasoned blandness and lack of choice. This did a great disservice to caterers, schools and more particularly to the children entitled to free school meals. You just needed to look at Lloyd Grossman’s spectacular failure with food in the NHS using celebrity chefs to see that the approach was entirely wrong. A much better approach would have been a middle path, the one trodden by many parents and those with a love of food than what appeared to be the food police making mealtimes the low point of the day for everyone.

This attempt to go too far too quickly imposing standards on caterers made school food so dull and bland that take up amongst students in many schools fell dramatically and has led to the School Food Trust becoming irrelevant and, as we’ve seen, junk food creeping back. Is it any wonder that a fifth of those entitled to them don’t take up the offer of free school meals? Once again it’s this wretched pendulum swinging back the other way.

Some good points did come from the Trust, most notably forcing a lot of people in schools to put the importance of diet for children back onto the curriculum. It’s also become a very emotive and newsworthy issue. Just look at the publicity surrounding Martha Payne in Argyll  blogging about her school dinners?

So where do we go from here? Schools, contract caterers and local government caterers need to work to a much higher standard and recognise that budgets intended for catering should be spent on catering because it matters a lot if young people are given a sustained poor quality diet. Standards of service from front line catering staff continues to be poor, diminishing the eating experience for a lot of students. The environment in which some students have to eat is also fairly dire, so it is incumbent on all headteachers to make sure that the lunchtime meal in schools is one of the highlights of the school day.

It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom though. In the post Jamie world I think standards will slowly improve and fit in more closely with what young people are used to in the eating environment away from school.  With better communication and using new software students will be able to order what they want online for the week ahead and have this delivered to them with some assurance of provenance of ingredients and quality of cooking. Gradually those not suited to customer service will go; schools will insist that they are replaced with people who like food and children and smiling. Budgets for catering need to be focussed on equipment and dining areas and food needs to be seen as one of the essential ingredients in running a modern successful and happy school.

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Justin Fairhall

Justin Fairhall is the founder and managing director of Lunchtime UK, an independent catering company based in Cambridge and London supplying meals to schools and colleges in the South East of England. Lunchtime UK offers fresh, locally sourced ingredients prepared from scratch every day by qualified chefs, with an emphasis on tasty and nutritious food that young people want to eat, served by friendly, helpful staff in pleasant surroundings.

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  1. Speaking as a former head who attempted to implement a ‘healthy meals’ policy well before Jamie Oliver’s campaign, I can’t say it wasn’t obvious what would happen once the government decided to interfere – dictating that children couldn’t have a cookie at playtime but could have one as their pudding with lunch was just one example of the daft ‘logic’ that was issued to heads as the new ‘law’. It was when they also said cheese was ‘bad’ for growing children (who need proportionately more fat than adults do) that I wanted to hunt down both Jamie Oliver and the Food Trust wonks and throw bits of old pizza at them. What we’ve got now, however, with academies and free schools gleefully flogging any old junk to kids with the education secretary’s full support, is shameful.

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