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School meals, public health and finance - a difficult mix

School meals funding in England currently comes from a variety of sources; free school meals and Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) are funded via local authorities with money from Government. For other students, parents or guardians are expected to foot the bill. Many local authorities continue to subsidise the cost of school meals, though the number able to do this is decreasing rapidly.


As is evident in APSE’s latest finance report, ‘Sustainable local government finance and liveable local areas’, it looks likely that by 2020, council combined current and capital spending will be at its lowest level since before 1948. It is increasingly evident that education catering may only survive in many local areas where it is capable of being able to fully recover the costs of the services. However, in spite of the parlous state of funding for school meals, it is an important contributor to the wider role of local authorities in public health.


Since local authorities have been given control of Public Health, their responsibilities have increased to include public mental health, stop smoking campaigns and sexual health. Alongside this, they also have responsibility for children’s public health and obesity programmes. As part of their aims, they must work to create nutritious meals and develop healthy habits for all schoolchildren. However, this is made difficult by their decreasing direct involvement in education (devolved budgets and Academisation being the main examples) combined with the struggle to maintain high levels of uptake on school meals, which are typically healthier than packed lunches.

School caterers are constantly looking at means of keeping their prices low and their menus exciting in order to encourage uptake. Currently, the ‘break even’ point seems to sit between 75 and 100 meals per day. This high figure is worrying. Although prices need to be kept low, if uptake is not high enough, and without any additional funding available, students who do opt for school meals will soon have to deal with less choice and fewer new, exciting options. This is a vicious circle, as it then makes the prospect of school meals less enticing for children, and therefore school caterers risk losing their custom.

The problem lies in the fact that this is simply one part of the fight against obesity and ill-health. Whilst it is sensible and fairly obvious to suggest that nutritious school meals help children in the longer term adopt healthier eating patterns and lifestyles the evidence of how this works will need to be collected over decades not years.  The ‘evidence’ of success will be in future generations. Unfortunately such long term approaches are rarely evidenced in public policy making or funding!  This dynamic of fragmented funding and long term evidence exacerbates the difficulties for local councils to provide children with healthy, nutritious meals. Yet, at this troubling time, we must ensure that we look to retain nutritious and healthy free school meals for those most in need, as well as UIFSM, so that young children develop beneficial eating habits to take with them into adulthood.

Currently, 1 in 5 children begin primary school overweight, with just under 10% of all children beginning school classed as obese. This in itself is shocking, but the problem is not alleviated as they move through school; by Year 6, when leaving primary school, 1 in 3 children are classed as overweight, and around 19% of children now leave school obese. Supplying these children with healthy school meals is a huge step in the right direction. This sort of preventative action can help save the billions that would be spent by the NHS on obesity related illness – estimated to reach £9.7 billion by 2050 – and the wider economy – which looks likely to reach £49.9 billion by the same date. This includes illnesses such as type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease.


However, obesity cannot be solved simply through school meals alone. Complimenting these meals, changes to the National Curriculum sees the return of cooking to mainstream education and will at least provide the next generation with the ability to cook meals using raw ingredients – giving them options away from processed food. The role of the School Meal is crucial in this fight. Only by changing eating habits, introducing children to healthy, nutritious alternatives and then reinforcing that for the 190 days per year that children attend school, will we create the lifestyle changes required to crack this problem.

Upper-tier councils are now tasked with Public Health and so some have taken the opportunity to invest in their School Meals service to realise part of their aims. This has included funding development chefs and providing support around healthy eating. The introduction of Health and Wellbeing Boards should provide the opportunity to break down some of the budget silos from the past and invest in the interventions needed. APSE has always argued the case that we should operate on the basis of spend to save when it comes to health. We need to shift from an ill-health treatment service to an ill-health prevention service. School meals are a case in point when it comes to the health of future generations and how we prevent health demands growing on obesity related illness such as Type II diabetes and cardio-vascular disease.


Health funding is quite rightly reliant on evidence-based research linked to demonstrable outcomes. And here is one of the problems that must be addressed; whilst the Government in Westminster invested in UIFSM, the evaluation studies that were headlined to accompany the funding were never commissioned. In Scotland, the story is thankfully different and the Government there has taken steps to monitor and research the outcomes. Obesity isn’t going to be solved overnight and investment is needed for the longer term to ensure our children and our future children benefit from improved eating habits.


Changes to school funding and Academisation have seen the relationship with local authorities change. The increased central funding of school meals has seen uptake increase from around 45% in a typical primary school to an anticipated 65% overall (with around 85% in KS1). This has made the market more appealing to the private sector and taken a typical primary school meals service from financially marginal to commercially viable. Commercial competition combined with stretched existing school budgets has encouraged many schools to focus almost entirely on price, with only limited recognition of the added value being offered from their Council in-house provider. We cannot afford to allow the benefits of school meals to be potentially sacrificed in this way. There is a great need for school meals to be encompassed formally within the School Inspection regime to ensure that this is the case. The ‘added value’ of local council school meals services is an integrated and holistic approach to health and wellbeing of our children. Holistic programmes which support healthy eating and active lifestyles.


With uncertain financial and organisational changes ahead, it can be difficult for local government to see where their education catering services are heading in the long-term. Despite the challenges, however, this is a real opportunity for local authorities to make a positive, lasting change to the health and wellbeing of their local community, which APSE believes is vital in the fight against obesity.

Promoting excellence in public services

APSE (Association for Public Service Excellence) is a not for profit unincorporated association working with over 300 councils throughout the UK. Promoting excellence in public services, APSE is the foremost specialist in local authority frontline services, hosting a network for frontline service providers in areas such as waste and refuse collection, parks and environmental services, cemeteries and crematorium, environmental health, leisure, school meals, cleaning, housing and building maintenance.






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