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We need the infrastructure and training to support FSM expansion, urges ‘the Dinner Lady’

21st Nov 2022 - 10:37
jeanette orrey school dinner free meals expansion christmas letter
Jeanette Orrey, children's food campaigner, former school ‘dinner lady’ and co-founder of Food for Life has written an open letter highlighting concern that calls to expand provision of free school meals (FSM) fails to take into account the need for infrastructure and equipment investment as well as staff recruitment and training.

The letter, written in cooperation with the Scottish poverty and inequality commissioner Lindsay Graham, has also been signed off by Brad Pearce, chair of LACA, the UK school meal providers organisation, and Matthew White, chair of the Public Sector Catering Alliance (PSCA).

Here is the full text:

Christmas is coming … 

Christmas is coming and the turkeys may not be reaching many tables this year. It’s not just avian ‘flu we should be worrying about either. I was recently chatting to my long-time school meals pal Lindsay Graham and we both agreed that the current cost-of-living crisis has once again thrown school meals very much into the media spotlight. With Celebrities, teaching unions and health professionals among those rightly asking for increased eligibility of free school meals for those children whose families are on universal credit, we couldn’t help but wonder where those who are serving the meals every single day to millions of children fit in with this policy request. A request that was sadly overlooked by the recent autumn statement.

It’s with great interest that I have been following the news on this. As a former school cook (dinner lady) and co-founder of a national charity that has long advocated for better nutrition and quality of food in our schools, I find myself somewhat bewildered at the missing part of this important demand by campaigners. And that is the infrastructure that would enable such an expansion of the school meals service. A decent infrastructure would be required to allow the service to operate safely and be delivered well. That, in turn, would mean extra funding for staff, training, equipment, logistics and the increasing cost of food and fuel. I have yet to see a mention of this in any of the news, blogs, tweets and research articles printed about increasing eligibility or calling for universal meals. Any policy of such magnitude must include increased infrastructure costs. If they are not included the implementation of any expansion in service would, in my humble opinion, be chaotic and very difficult to deliver.

As winter approaches we know that 800,000 children are slipping through the net who might otherwise have a free hot lunch. My guess is this figure is likely to be more than 1m by the time you read this. I will never fathom how government decisions are made that, once again, so cruelly let down another generation living in poverty by not acknowledging their right to food.

My question for you all is: do you get the policy in place then, as an afterthought, ask the catering service on the ground who deliver the meals how to get the job done? Parachute policies from above seldom work unless those on the ground are prepared.

A decade ago in England Universal Infant Free School Meals was introduced. At the time there was an additional, much-needed £250m for infrastructure needs because many areas did not have kitchens or dining halls. Most schools doubled their numbers, meaning extra hours in the kitchens, extra food costs to the caterer, supervising staff costs, marketing and training all delivered for the princely sum of £2.30 per meal.

Current times are very different, and it feels like one step forward and three back right now. We’ve had Brexit, then Covid, the war in Ukraine war and now the result of that perfect storm has brought a deepening cost-of-living crisis. As prime ministers and chaotic cabinets do a revolving waltz round Downing Street, kids are going hungry. The increase over the last decade to support those hungry children in England is 11 pence. Let that sink in – just 11p. For means-tested free school meals the daily allowance is only £2.47.

I think about those who serve the meals every single day. Most of them worked through the Covid pandemic feeding pupils, staff, the local community and emergency services. Some even delivered the food directly to shielding and vulnerable households. Many caught Covid, but despite being short-handed those left in the school kitchens carried on working.

The uncertainty of incomes from work or benefits has been like the sword of Damocles hanging over millions in this country and it is becoming impossible for head teachers and caterers to balance the books because increasing numbers of children and their families are becoming reliant on that one, daily hot meal. Schools, like other places with public food services like hospitals, care homes and universities etc. have continued working. They have been consistently providing meals to our children, young people, the ill and the elderly throughout these stressful times we have experienced. We should never forget the value of the public food service across our communities, but it seems to me, it is very much taken for granted. It is vital that these services keep operating as our nation is nourished and supported at such critical and important points in all our lives.

Increasing the threshold of FSM is something that must happen. However, it must happen in tandem with appropriate resources being delivered for school kitchens, dining halls and support for staff. Why? Because the influx of numbers will not be manageable without properly-resourced infrastructure. The current service is already struggling and simply would not cope.

Small increases in numbers between five and 20 could probably be catered for, but having spoken to one school recently where they see a potential rise of 185, this would mean the need for more staff and the service would become difficult to manage with current equipment and space.

Key considerations include storage space, fridges, freezers, pots, pans, cutlery, tables. As things stand, this would be entirely down to the already-stretched school budget. And by how much will the lunchtime break have to be extended to enable all the children through with enough time to eat their lunch properly? Some schools have an hour, but some have only 25 minutes or sometimes even less. This, of course, generates further need to employ more lunch-time assistants. And, I could add, teaching assistants, but I know schools have had to let many go because of budget cuts.

I do believe that things like automated registration for FSM would be a good first step on the road to extending eligibility for free school meals for all those in need, and we can learn from different approaches such as community eligibility and supper provision. Lord knows, if the government doesn’t do more to help put cash in empty pockets soon, we will need to find every opportunity to help feed the struggling families in our communities over the year ahead.

Back to the turkey, though, and while there will be families this Christmas who will hopefully still have food on the table this festive season, for others it’s going to be a pretty grim affair. That’s why those wonderful Christmas school lunches we see each December on social media will be even more precious for thousands if not millions of kids this year.

I’ve seen both sides of the school meals story, some of the best and some of the worst practices. And I’ve experienced first-hand the effects upon this valuable public service of many years of neglectful underfunding.

What does all this mean for those who serve our children every day? How do they feel? I think I know … do you?

Jeanette Orrey MBE, co-founder Food for Life

Supported by:
Brad Pearce, chair LACA (the school food people)
Matthew White, MBE, chair of the Public Sector Catering Alliance


Written by
David Foad