What pupils are REALLY allowed to eat at school

Schools must follow food standards and provide free meals to all infants. But dig into those standards and you’ll find odd combinations of ingredients. And what about the children who bring in their own food? Who keeps an eye on what they eat?

Do you like the meals at your school? I can remember going up for a third helping of my school’s infamous roast potatoes and counting the hours until it was “bacon burger day”. I wonder if they still exist?

Food in schools has been on the social and political agenda for some time from Jamie’s campaign to have Turkey Twizzlers taken off the menu to a recent Educational Institute of Scotland report that revealed many pupils are going to school hungry and, in some cases, stealing food from classmates.

So what are a school’s obligations when it comes to dinners?

Since September 2014, every child in reception, year 1 and year 2 in state-funded schools has been entitled to a free school meal. One must also be provided for pupils where a meal is requested and either the pupil is eligible for free school lunches or it would “not be unreasonable for lunches to be provided” (which covers most scenarios).

The law sets out food standards for lunches, and for food and drink other than at lunch (ie, at a breakfast or after-school club).

So, who does this apply to?

The standards do not apply to academies established between September 2010 and May 2014, nursery schools not within primary schools or independent schools. It is up to these schools whether they adopt the standards, which many do. Does this create a two-tier system? Is the government failing to deliver the same guarantee of minimum nutritional food standards for all schools?

Bacon is not classified as a meat. I hope all this has been sense-checked

Maintained boarding schools do have to meet the standards but only for food consumed before 6pm, so the evening meal served at 6.15pm can include confectionery, snacks, cakes and biscuits. Why does the time change the stance on healthy eating? Perhaps it is to give kids at boarding schools the same opportunities as kids who go home and can eat what they like.

As you are all likely to know what the standards are, I thought it would be interesting to look at how the standards produce slightly odd results.

Guidance suggests that cakes can only be served at lunchtime as they can be high in fat whereas malt loaf, bagels, fruit bread and muffins can be served anytime as they tend to be lower in fat and sugar. (I can see the “when is a cake a biscuit?” argument cropping up on this one.)

Another example is bacon and sausages. Sausages are classified as a meat product and therefore can be provided once a week in primary schools. But if sausages are provided at a breakfast club, they can’t be provided at any other time in the same week – so what about the children who don’t attend breakfast club? Also bacon is not classified as a meat product so its provision is not restricted. I hope all of this has been sense-checked.

The school has to take reasonable steps to cater for allergies and special diets, but what does reasonably mean? Is it reasonable to follow France’s lead and not always offer a pork-free meal for Muslims?

Exemptions do exist and apply to parties to mark religious/cultural occasions, fundraising events (you can have that bake sale!), rewards for achievement, good behaviour or effort, for use in teaching food prep and on an occasional basis by parents and pupils. I wonder how many special events you can have each year and how special or cultural they have to be?

Another point: it is all very well regulating school lunches, but what about those children who bring in packed lunches? Who is regulating these? Are these children missing out on the essential nutrients they need because no one is checking?

The DfE advice is up for review this month, but in the meantime it may be worth reviewing your catering requirements and nudging the standard of your schools dinners up from good to great.

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