The Right2Food Charter and how it isn’t that simple

I shall apologise right now for this blog – it probably will sound a little ranty.

This week all schools got a letter from Nadhim Zahawi MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families. He wanted to draw our attention to the food situation of disadvantaged children, and to highlight three things in particular. These points were:

                A positive lunchtime experience

                Avoiding stigma, and

                Access to free drinking water.

He called for examples of outstanding practice in these areas.

I felt compelled to write, not because I think our provision is ‘outstanding’ but because I think the vast majority of schools already do their utmost to address these points and because of the limiting factors that make a very uneven playing field.

Addressing those points in reverse order, we can demonstrate how they are simply not relevant to our school because we have eliminated the problems.

Water, in jugs, is provided on every table at lunchtime. The four cloakrooms in the main building have fresh water fountains (installed this year to replace old facilities). Children are encouraged to bring a water bottle that they can refill at school. We provide cups (reusable) that they can otherwise use. Sorted.

Even before the introduction of an on-line payment system there was no distinction made between paid for and free school meals, at either end. The choices on offer are entirely the same. No reference is made, or even available, to FSM entitlement on the dinner register. No child is aware of the distinction, the lunchtime supervisors are not aware and neither is the kitchen. All the children who take a school meal are free to choose from the full selection on offer. When teachers take the dinner register, to record that day’s choices, there is absolutely no information displayed or available to staff or children about who does or does not pay for their meals. The children do not sit separately, queue separately, or get served separately. I say this because Mr Zahawi’s letter suggests that in some schools things are not so.

Success in providing a ‘positive lunchtime experience’ is not so straight forward. The relevant research says that, ‘Children place a high value on affordable healthy choices, avoiding queues and having enough time and space to eat with their peers’. If we pick that apart we could easily say that all three elements are met.

Our school meals cost £2.00, as simple as that. It matters not one bit what choices or quantities children take, whether they use the salad bar or not, or take a dessert, or have vegetables, or street food on a Wednesday, or what filling they put in a jacket potato, the daily cost is £2.00. The meals for a child who qualifies for FSM cost £2.00 as well.

Every meal OFFERED meets the national School Food Standards. The menus have been developed by a professional team of nutritionists, who do take children’s input and preferences as part of the design process but the restrictions of legislation can over-rule these desires. Then, of course, it very much depends on what children actually take and then subsequently eat. I have written many times about this: many children do not take a vegetable or salad choice, and many restrict their choice of dessert to something similar each day. The amount we later pick off the floor or that goes into waste bins is frustrating, baffling and troubling. It does demonstrate the gulf between offer and uptake. The answer to this is far from simple: when I asked parents whether they would support school in placing restrictions on what could be sent in as snacks the overwhelming response was to reject the idea of me being the arbiter of what was ‘healthy’. I cannot imagine a good level of support if I wanted to enforce taking and eating the full offer of fruit and veg with each meal. Money, what a surprise, would help, but it would need to be substantial.  A purpose-built and extra dining room would benefit the lunchtime experience, but our annual capital funding of less than £10,000 is never going to provide that. The Government’s grant of £24 million is only actually supporting 1,700 breakfast clubs – I say ‘only’ because there are more than 32,000 Primary Schools in the UK – and they are targeted at disadvantaged areas. The chance of our pupils benefiting is close to zero.

We avoid queues as far as absolutely possible by having an unusual staggered lunch break. The school was built for 360 pupils and having 485 means we would have 125 children queuing for a long time if we just kept the one start / end time. Effectively we save 240 children a day from queuing for 20 minutes each – a staggering 15,200 hours a year saved!  We do not force ‘second sitting’ classes to queue – but they do anyway! We have tried to improve this further when we investigated a portable servery arrangement to go in the hall, but the physical layout and logistics simply make it impossible. We are concerned a little by the shortness of time children spend at the servery hatch; it is here that staff might be able to introduce something new, fresh, healthy or extra. A second servery might help that. We support the return of trays and plates through staffing to reduce or remove queues at the back end of things. Daily observation tells us that all children are out of the hall and outside playing for at least 15 minutes each day, and that the last ones out are last because they choose to stay and chat in the hall.

Governors, in discussion with our school meal provider, recently asked if we could increase the cost of meals if it led to an improvement in quality of ingredients or the quality of meal provision by increasing staffing. We were told they is no mechanism for this.

What made me reply to Mr Zahawi’s letter was not a self-evaluation as ‘outstanding’ but the idea that a blanket letter is appropriate and that the answer (to a not necessarily significant issue) is within the school’s control. I suspect that many of the issues are Secondary School based, so why write to Primary Schools at all? And with our one-hall-does-all what exactly can we do to improve the place children eat?

A copy of the letter from Mr Zahawi is available from this link:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/school-responsibilities-around-school-food-a-letter-to-schools

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