We’ve made progress; the food in our schools is miles better than it was a decade ago. Thankfully, there has been a steep reduction in junk foods and most dishes served at lunch are freshly cooked and nutritious – far more so than the average packed lunch. Indeed, most children really enjoy their school lunches, too. In a survey conducted with the Sunday Times, 77% of children described their school food as either tasty or very tasty.
However, I know there is still room for improvement. As such, I have been working closely with my colleagues at the Department for Education to ensure that all children can enjoy healthy and nutritious food at school regardless of background. As the former Sports Minister, I am all too aware of the importance of developing positive and healthy eating habits in childhood, as I appreciate these habits will stay with them throughout their lives.
Currently, the Requirements for School Food Regulations 2014, requires schools to provide children with healthy food and drink options and ensure that children get the necessary energy and nutrition throughout the school day.
These standards provide a robust yet flexible framework to ensure that pupils receive high quality and nutritious food that builds healthy eating habits for life. Therefore, I welcome the Government’s continued efforts to promote compliance with the School Food Standards and will keep this under review.
While I believe it is the primary responsibility of schools to teach, these regulations strike the right balance between school autonomy and government intervention. For instance, the standards set out that meat or poultry must be provided on three or more days each week, and milk must be available for drinking every day which I understand is a concern for some.
The Government is actively encouraging schools to speak to parents about their school meals provision, for example, by completing a statement on their websites setting out their whole school approach to food, and act reasonably to ensure it best meets the needs and beliefs of their school communities. Schools can consider local circumstances, as well as the dietary and cultural needs of their pupils, when deciding their food policies. This applies, for example, to the provision of vegan meals.
As the Minister for Social Mobility, Youth and Progression, my focus remains on ensuring that families can afford to send their children to school with healthy and nutritious packed lunches if they aren’t already in receipt of free school meals. As such, I am pleased to see the latest round of cost-of-living payments being welcomed by millions of families across the country – as will further payments due over the next year.
Over a third of pupils in England currently receive free school meals in education settings and the Government has just announced a further investment in the National School Breakfast Programme, extending the programme for another year until July 2024, backed by up to £30 million.
Ultimately, there has been a drastic improvement in the quality and accessibility of school food in recent years with many schools transforming school dinners, introducing food growing into the curriculum and teaching cookery. However, I recognise there is still more to do particularly in taking localised successes and ensuring they are replicated nationally.