The government’s food strategy has been labelled “disappointing” and a “pale imitation” of the independent review that influenced it, after most of the schools recommendations were stripped away.
The national food strategy published two reports by school food plan co-author Henry Dimbleby which called for widespread changes to school food provision and cookery education.
One of the key recommendations of the final report was a call to increase the threshold for free school meals eligibility to £20,000. This would have handed 1.1 million more pupils access to free food at school.
But the government’s response, published today, includes no new commitment on free school meals, and ignores several other important recommendations from Dimbleby’s review.
Even Dimbleby himself has criticised the response, telling the Guardian that “with inflation as it is, both the amount spent on free school meals is significantly less in real terms than it was a year ago and the number of people who need it is significantly more”.
“I do hope it is being looked at, people are being inflated into poverty and food providers are being inflated into not producing healthy meals.”
It comes after Schools Week revealed that pupils who have benefited from school meal vouchers during holiday periods since the beginning of the pandemic have started to see the provision disappear, as councils in some areas run out of funding to provide them.
It also follows recent calls to extend free school meals eligibility to all pupils from households that claim universal credit, and to raise the funding schools receive to provide them.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the benefit of providing free school meals to low-income families was “obvious and has very wide support across the country”.
“Teachers are really worried about the impact of the cost of living on children and family incomes. This policy will result in a great many young people going hungry, and this is a totally unacceptable position for a government to take.”
Accreditation scheme and subject lead plans scrapped
Also missing from the final strategy document is any mention of an accreditation scheme for schools, which was proposed in Dimbleby’s last report.
He said the government should “require schools” to work with “accreditation schemes” such as Food for Life to “improve food and food education in schools”, but this did not make the final cut.
He had also called for the reinstatement of food A-level, a subject lead in every school and for government to pay for pupils’ cooking ingredients. These proposals are not mentioned either.
Dimbleby also recommended that funding for the school fruit and vegetable scheme be doubled. Today’s document only promises to review the” policy and delivery method” of the programme.
The original review called for cookery to be inspected with the “same rigour” as English and maths.
The government’s levelling up white paper did pledge a pilot project to “test a new approach for local authorities in assuring and supporting compliance with school food standards”, but this is currently limited to a few areas of the country.
There was also a recommendation that the holiday activities and food programme be extended. An extension has since been announced, but only for three years so far.
Stephanie Slater, chief executive of School Food Matters, said the government’s response was “disappointing as it fails to address many of the issues we are seeing in schools”.
“While commitments to improve food education are reiterated, these are nothing new. Failing to take this opportunity to expand free school meals in the middle of a cost of living crisis is out of touch with the reality for so many families.”
The Food Foundation described the response as a “pale imitation” of the original review.
Food strategy recommendations: What happened to them?
Make schools work with food standard accreditation schemes’ ✗
Reinstate food A-level ✗
Require a cookery lead in every school ✗
Pay for pupils ingredients ✗
Increase free school meals threshold to £20k ✗
Double fruit and veg scheme funding ✗*
Inspect cookery with ‘same rigour’ as English and maths ✓**
Extend holiday activities and food programme ✓***
* But they have committed to a review
** Only a pilot launched so far
*** But only for three years