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Survey finds school meals at risk as poorer quality food served to children

04 Jul 2022
A survey of school caterers across England and Wales has found that children’s access to high quality school meals is at risk due to a combination of rising food costs, supply chain issues and inadequate funding for school food, with insufficient funding for the sector meaning more children are missing out on school lunches.

The survey, conducted by LACA – The School Food People, found that 90% of caterers are experiencing food shortages as a result of supply chain issues and the rising cost of food, with an average food cost increase of 20% since April 2020. The survey also found that:

  • Half of caterers are now experiencing worse food shortages than in January 2022.
  • 78% of caterers have had to change their menus or reduce menu options as a result of supply chain issues.
  • 40% of caterers are concerned they will no longer be able to meet the school food standards in the new academic year and 55% said that if things do not improve, school food quality will deteriorate.
  • 57% of our members have seen a drop in the uptake of paid meals, despite 54% of our members seeing FSM eligibility increasing. This indicates that many children are now falling through the cracks due to the cost of living crisis.

The sector is also facing a recruitment challenge, with 78% of caterers reporting a lack of applicants for the jobs they post, and 63% reporting a lack of applicants with the correct skill levels. Moreover, 45% state the situation has deteriorated since January 2022.

The 2.9% increase in Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) funding announced in June is insufficient to deal with the challenge the industry is facing. LACA are urgently calling on Government to increase UIFSM funding in line with funding for Free School Meals (FSM) from £2.41 per meal to £2.47 per meal and for this to increase annually with inflation.

LACA also support the National Food Strategy recommendation to extend FSM to all children whose parents earn less than £20,000 per annum and urge Government to reconsider the decision not to take this recommendation forward in the Food Strategy published in June.

In order to ensure funding follows the child, LACA are also calling for school meals funding to be ringfenced. The budget is currently issued to schools who do not always pass the full amount to the caterer to provide school meals.

Over one-third (38%) of LACA’s members who responded said they do not receive the full £2.47 per meal for FSM. Similarly, 28% of our members who responded said they did not receive the full UIFSM amount when it was at £2.34.

For some children, their school lunch is the only hot meal they will eat in a day. Caterers are warning they will not be able to provide healthy meals that meet the School Food Standards in September if urgent action is not taken to support the industry.

Other key survey findings:

  • Over one third (34%) of caterers are considering using more processed food, with 12% already doing so.
  • Almost 30% of caterers are considering switching from British meat to meat from abroad, with 20% already doing so.
  • Over two-thirds (67%) of caterers are experiencing shortages of ambient groceries such as pasta, oil and tinned goods.
  • Over half (53%) are experiencing shortages of frozen groceries such as potato products, fish and chicken.
  • 41% are experiencing shortages of dairy and bakery goods.
  • 30% are experiencing shortages of fresh meat, including chicken, lamb and beef.

Commenting on the findings of the survey, National Chair of LACA Jacquie Blake said: “These findings should act as an urgent wake-up call. Many school caterers are at breaking point. Without adequate funding for school meals the most vulnerable children will miss out on what in some cases is their only hot meal of the day. Caterers strive to provide hot and nutritious school meals, but this is becoming increasingly difficult and is likely to only get worse in the coming months.

“Too many children are already falling through the cracks – their families cannot afford a paid school meal, but they are not eligible for Free School Meals (FSM). LACA have long called for the FSM entitlement to be extended, which is why we supported the National Food Strategy recommendation to extend FSM to all children whose parents earn less than £20,000 per annum.

“With families facing a cost of living crisis at home, it is even more urgent than ever that all children receive a healthy school lunch. This can only be achieved through sufficient support for the sector and we are calling on the government to act now to ensure that schools are able to continue feeding children.”