Don’t compromise on quality nutrition with free school lunches
The provision of free school meals is an important step but it is imperative that the meals still meet food quality standards, writes Joanna Lewis from the Soil Association.
The recent announcement of free school lunches for the first three years of primary school was pitched as a ‘cost of living’ measure.
This lead to inevitable sniping from the TaxPayers Alliance about money down the drain for wealthy families who can quite easily afford their child’s chorizo and sourdough sarnies for lunch.
In reality, this is an investment in all our children’s health and education of major significance. It is common sense to most parents – backed by hard evidence from the work of the Food for Life Partnership – that children learn best if they have eaten a nutritious meal.
That matters for all our children, not just the most disadvantaged. Packed lunches are no substitute; even the most conscientious gastro-Mum or Dad will struggle to make a daily packed lunch as nutritious as a school meal, thanks to the school food standards.
Research shows, in fact, that only 1 per cent measure up. Those already eligible for free school meals will also benefit from this move as it will remove the stigma which puts off around 20 per cent of disadvantaged children from claiming their entitlement.
Two important points remain for the government to get this right.
First, they need to reassure parents there will be no compromise on quality.
Not only do these free meals have to meet the school food standards, but parents would be reassured by the Soil Association’s Food for Life Catering Mark standards which guarantee freshness, quality and provenance without any increase in meal price.
Over 20 per cent of school meals - 115 million meals a year – are already Catering Mark-accredited.
Secondly, they need to extend free meals to pre-school children.
Nick Clegg’s other big innovation this September is the new early education places for 130,000 disadvantaged two year olds, but free lunches are not included in this, despite evidence of the critical importance of good nutrition for early years.
Ironically, the means test for the two year old entitlement is whether the family is eligible for free school meals for their school aged children. To complete the positive news, it is vital that the opportunity is taken to get free healthy lunches into the mouths of these children that need it most.
On the 9-10th October, the Soil Association 2013 Conference will showcase solutions and approaches to the environmental and public health challenges of our day.
Each of the days concentrates on the major themes of the Soil Association’s Work. Day one is all about feeding people better and is hosted by Soil Association President Monty Don. Day two concentrates on the innovation we need to meet the farming challenges ahead, hosted by Charlotte Smith from Radio 4’s Farming Today.
Find out more about the conference here
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