by Cally Ip, Dr Andy Kemp MBE, Patricia Fellows MBE, and Gavin Squires

How will the 2024 General Election impact school meals?

How will the 2024 General Election impact school meals?

It’s almost time! In just over a week we will have a new government, and with that brings opportunities, but also lots of questions and important subject matters that need to be addressed.
A key area of focus for us as a business is around school meals. And, the upcoming general election can impact school meals in several ways, depending on the policies and priorities of the winning party. Most notably funding and budgets for school meals could be affected.
Each of the parties will prioritise education and child nutrition differently; some parties may increase funding for school meals, ensuring better quality and accessibility. Meanwhile others may choose to cut budgets, affecting the availability and quality of meals. In addition, there could also be an expansion of subsidies for low-income families, or even the potential to expand free school meals to all students.
We recently sat down to record an episode of our Talking Food with Bidfood podcast to discuss the current situation within school catering and the impact of politics on school meal funding.
We delved into a number of important topics including the struggles school caterers are faced with, what it would mean to expand the provision of Universal Infant Free School Meals, and what the next elected government can do ensure every child is fed a nutritious hot meal.
This was an incredibly insightful conversation from some of our experts on all things education:

  • Host: Cally Ip, Senior Customer Marketing Executive at Bidfood
  • Co-host: Gavin Squires, Business Development Controller at Bidfood
  • Guest: Dr Andy Kemp MBE, Group Executive Director at Bidfood
  • Guest: Patricia Fellows MBE, School Meals Expert

You can listen to the full episode here or above, or alternatively keep on reading to hear some of our key highlights.

Cally: It has become more of a challenge to cater for schools, especially over the last few years. But what would you say has been the main causes of this difficulty?

Pat: So I think that the problems out there are fragmentation in particular. Now we have local authority schools, we have schools doing their own thing, groups of schools doing their own thing, and we also have academy trusts and also schools that are under the private finance initiatives. It’s very difficult to have a uniform thing. And then you add to that the issue of funding, which is probably the biggest one of the moment.

Cally: Gavin, you’re out and about with our education customers every day. What do you see schools struggling with the most?  

Gavin: Actually, Cally, as we host this podcast, I’m here at one of our key education clients’ premises. And the key challenges our education customers are facing on a day-to-day basis are budgets and funding. Schools simply do not have the correct levels of funding, and our customers are struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis and basically manage on a shoestring.
So it’s come to the point now that if funding is not addressed in review, the future of education catering is in doubt.
Andy, Pat and myself work so closely with the government via the All Party Parliamentary Group in relation to school food, and we continue to lobby government on this critical subject on behalf of industry. So on multiple occasions, 2 or 3 occasions now, we’ve submitted our paper to government and the shadow cabinet outlining the severity of the situation, along with our recommendation for increases in universal free school meals to £3.30, which has simply been falling on deaf ears.

Cally: Pat, you’ve been working in this industry a long time. Has it always been this difficult?

Pat: No, it was fine until about 1980, when the conservative government said you do not need to provide the hot meal anymore. You can just provide a sandwich for the free meal children. And then in 1986 came the compulsory competitive tendering and that’s when the industry started to change.
Cally: The cost of living has increased rapidly over the last few years. Wages have risen and the cost of food and bills has also risen at the same time. This is having a massive effect on many families across the nation, with many struggling to feed their children.
Many children are missing out on free school meals, which is such a shame as school meals need to adhere to the School Meal Standards, therefore guaranteeing children at least one nutritious meal a day. So uptake of school meals is only part of the problem. A massive issue is also the underfunding of school meals by the government.

Cally: Am I right to say that there’s a lot of schools don’t delegate the full budget to school catering?

Andy: No they don’t. I mean, what they have is a nominated day in the term where they calculate how many pupils they will feed and then they work from that for their nomination. And this is obviously an issue because the monies that are being paid specifically for children at this point now is going back to the school and not to the caterer.
Pat: This is the census which takes place once or twice a year and it’s based on how many children take up universal free school meals on a particular day. Now what happens is head teachers ask the caterer to put a really nice menu on. And so lots of the universal free school meal children come and then it pushes up the census numbers.
Then the school is paid the £2.53 for that number of students for that year. What happens is that by Friday, many of those Universal Infant Free School Meal children don’t come in for a school meal so the head teacher gets about 30% of £2.53 which they can use in other budgets. Now, I have some sympathy for that because their budgets are in a mess as well, but it certainly doesn’t help the caterer.
Now we have seen that some schools and local authorities have to close down their services because caterers just can’t afford to get a meal on the plate.

It is said that 1 million children in England are going to be hungry. Now that is terrible

Patricia Fellows MBE
School Meals Expert

Cally: What can the next elected government do about this?

Gavin: The newly formed government need to focus on parity and alignment of the Universal Infant School Meal funding across England, Scotland, and Wales. So when you look at the funding for Wales being £3.20 and then with Scotland being £3.23, and also £3.00 for London, the rest of England is so far adrift to where funding needs to be, it’s absolutely shocking to be quite frank.
I would also encourage the government to ring-fence the funding for school meals as it is not ring-fenced and funding can be allocated to other areas of the school and not particularly to school catering.
Andy: Firstly, what the government can do going forward is actually face the fact that there is not sufficient enough funding to fill this gap today – we are nearly a pound under-funded.
Secondly, we have a million children that are living in poverty and in many cases are absolutely reliant on the one hot meal a day being provided by either an authority or by a contractor.
Thirdly, what I think they need to better understand is that the actually physical cost of this change is not massive in comparison to government budget but the rewards are huge.

In areas where there is greater poverty, there’s a greater chance that these children won’t get the opportunity to learn at the levels that they should do, and this is absolutely a criminal injustice in my opinion

Dr Andy Kemp MBE
Group Executive Director at Bidfood

Cally: if you had one key message to get across to the leaders and parliamentary candidates, what would it be?

Gavin: mine would be quite simple. Please listen to us. When I say ‘us’ I mean the industry. Please understand the challenges we’re facing on a day to day basis. It’s time to act now. We’re talking about the future generation, of our country, so we need to take immediate action for the education catering service to survive.
Andy: Act now. We can’t wait any longer. The situation is in such a dire state today and it’s not going to improve.
Pat: Let’s protect the wonderful service which has been going all these years. There’s staff that work so hard and still continue to do so, the ones in the kitchen who go in day in, day out, in the rain, in the snow, when they don’t feel well, they’re still there to feed their children and give them a lovely lunch and a smile. It’s for our children, and it’s so important.

Cally: A lot of work needs to be done to ensure that the next generation are fully equipped to learn and have the optimum foundation needed to grow.

You can check out the full podcast here.

If you’re looking for more information on what Bidfood can do to support your school, you’ll be able to find our schools webpage: School food suppliers – catering for schools across the UK – Bidfood.

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