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School dinners: it’s about trust, but also cost

Posted on 14 February 2013 .
Tags: children's food trust, free school meals, school dinners

Horse burger headlines throughout this week and last have really underlined how important it is for us Brits to know what it is we’re eating. Perhaps the most concerned about the standards of food are parents, as demonstrated by the furore caused by Jamie’s School Dinners back in 2005. Despite vast improvement in the quality since then and the well documented educational and behavioural benefits, today a majority of children do not have school meals.

So what is being done to encourage take-up of school dinners? Well, in 2006 on the back of Jamie Oliver’s campaign, the government created and – until earlier this month – funded the Children’s Food Trust that tracked the take-up and nutritional content of school meals. More recently, the government has initiated the School Food Plan that aims to ‘significantly increase the number of children eating good food in schools’.

Although the ethos of the School Food Plan is improving the quality and encouraging take-up of school meals, it seems somewhat at odds with other policy changes. It is possible that we will soon know less about what is going into school meals; the Children’s Food Trust is no longer being funded to run their annual survey and schools with academy status can opt-out of national standards for school food. And this could be at detriment to parents’ trust in school caterers.

Whilst trusting that kids are being fed well during school hours is part of the issue for parents, so is cost. Although parents are concerned about what is in the food their children are eating, we cannot forget that we are in tough economic times. Findings from our own research on Free School Meals showed a substantial increase in the take-up of school meals when these meals were free to all pupils. So it’s clear that cost is a key factor in parents’ decisions about what children do for lunch.

The government wants two things: better school food and more kids eating it. A guarantee that food in schools is high quality may encourage parents to opt for school dinners, but equally if good food comes at too high a price, parents will continue to pack lunches or look elsewhere.

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