Schools are reducing meal standards and sizes to cut costs in response to supply chain challenges.
A survey by food charity the Soil Association found 12.8% of schools had begun reducing standards and almost half (46.8%) were worried they would have to reduce the health standards of school meals if the current supply chain difficulties and cost increases continue.
A further 55.3% said they were unable to renegotiate contracts in the face of rising costs, while 27.7% said they had held conversations with suppliers to renegotiate contracts.
Food supply chains have been hit by commodity price rises, labour shortages, Russia’s war in Ukraine, extreme weather conditions, and soaring energy costs.
Schools said they had resorted to growing their own veg to cut costs, reduced portion sizes for children, while “some schools are suggesting we park school food standards for the time being”.
Others said they were reducing the amount of meat and switching to local suppliers. “It’s a real mess,” one school said.
One school added: “The concern is that food costs are still rising and these measures will not be enough.”
Rob Percival, head of food policy at the Soil Association, said: “School caterers have been warning of a growing crisis for years and now, predictably, it has come to a head. The government’s commitment to an additional seven pence per infant meal is welcome, but when caterers have faced years of underfunding on top of the current levels of inflation, this is wholly inadequate.
“The government needs to be more ambitious and undertake a comprehensive review of school food policy and funding, ensuring that caterers are supported to deliver fresh and sustainable meals, and that no child ever goes hungry while at school.”
Wheat flour is up 72.3% year-on-year, while palm oil has increased by 49.4%, and rapeseed oil by 31.9%.
Just over half of schools (55.3%) said they were concerned they would need to increase the amount of processed foods used in meals to cut costs, with 6.4% admitting to already incorporating such foods.
A separate study by researchers at Imperial College London found cheap ultra-processed food accounted for 64% of calories provided by school meals. Such foods put children at greater risk of developing type two diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Jennie Parnham, research associate in the School of Public Health at Imperial College London and lead author on the paper, said: “We need to view these findings as a call to action to invest in policies that can promote healthy eating. Owing to the current cost of living crisis, school meals should be a way for all children to access a low-cost nutritious meal. Yet our research suggests this is not currently the case.
“As food prices continue to rise in the UK and globally, accessing affordable, healthy food will become more challenging for many more people. School meals should offer children from all backgrounds access to a healthy and minimally processed meal, yet they are currently failing to meet their potential.”
A government spokesperson told Supply Management: “Schools are responsible for providing nutritious school meals and can agree individual contracts to meet this duty, using their core funding, which is increasing by £4bn in 2022-23 alone – a 7% increase in cash terms per pupil from last year.”
A government white paper in June said it would consult on an “ambition” of ensuring 50% of public sector food expenditure is spent on “food produced locally or to higher environmental standards… while maintaining value for money for taxpayers”.
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