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School food - what have we learnt from the UK’s 115 years of experience?

During National School Meals Week 2021, Donald Bundy and colleagues look back at the origins of the UK's school meal system, lessons learnt over the last century and the global effort to ensure equitable and well-balanced school meal systems.
Aziza, seventh grade, eats a date bar in a classroom at Salah Al-Din School in Sana'a city. Credit: WFP/Ahmed Haleem

The global closure of schools due to COVID-19 has helped spotlight the value of school meals across the world. In the UK, the conversation between Marcus Rashford and the Prime Minister brought recognition to the role of school food as a social safety net. Meanwhile globally, the support of President Macron of France and President Kigame of Rwanda demonstrated that this was a crisis that affected rich and poor countries alike. In September, this led to more than 110 countries and agencies creating a School Meals Coalition to help all nations build stronger school meals programmes as part of re-opening schools and recovering from COVID-19.

School meals make good economic and social sense; they are an investment in the development of children and the adults they become. Investing in the first 1,000 days of life (to age 2 years) is crucial for laying the foundations for early child development. It is also now clear that the support needs to continue through the next 7,000 days (to the early 20s) to sustain these early gains and to ensure health and wellbeing during later, vulnerable phases of development, especially puberty and brain development in late adolescence.  

Nations already recognise the wisdom of investing in universal education during the next 7,000 days, but sometimes forget the need to invest in the learner as well as their learning. Global analysis suggests that for every dollar invested in the health and nutrition of a school child during the next 7,000 days , the family and community sees nine dollars in return (£7 GBP) as children grow up to be healthy and educated, and well prepared to enter the workforce.

The UK established its ambitious school food programme 115 years ago to help level the playing field for the poorest children. Since then, the programme has run continuously, successfully surviving 30 general elections and 15 changes of party-political leadership, as well as being sustained throughout two world wars and, most recently, the extraordinary new challenge of pandemic lockdowns.

What started as a humble programme has been augmented over the years, to tether the quality of meals to national nutrition standards and the enhancement of social equity. There has also been a move from a simple “food aid model” to a focus on promoting learning, wellbeing and development in childhood and adolescence, and to establishing life-long healthy practices and dietary preferences that promote wellbeing throughout adulthood. That adaptation continues today, as UK school food responds to emerging challenges, including allergy and climate change.

The UK is a global leader in school food systems, yet these positive gains are much less well recognised than the negative stories that have gained the status of urban legend – mentioning “turkey twizzlers” or “free milk” will still catalyse debate. Despite being one of the longest running school meals programmes in the world, relatively little is documented about the practical policies and procedures that the UK food systems have devised over the decades to make this service so reliable, sustainable and resilient.  

To address this question in the run up to National School Meals Week 2021, OmVed Gardens, WFP UK, and the Research Consortium for School Health and Nutrition from LSHTM convened representatives spanning all facets of school meal programmes across the UK to share their experiences. These discussions have now set in motion a joint effort to document lessons learnt – good and bad – from more than a century of school food systems in the UK, including the experiences of all the devolved nations. The process is beginning now, with the aim to re-convene in the spring for a more technical discussion and to shape the output for both a UK and international audience.

A key guiding principle is that the team contributing to this national case study should reflect the extraordinary diversity of those who interact with the school food system, whether by virtue of being a student, parent or guardian, or by contributing to the production, procurement, cooking, and serving of meals, or through nutritional, programmatic, and legislative oversight. In particular, youth advocates must be meaningfully involved in the planning, execution and dissemination of this case study: they have already shown initiative in raising their voices using social media, and they are both the current and future beneficiaries of the systems in use today.  

Developing a case study on the UK food system is more than an academic exercise. Documenting good practices can help other countries to benchmark their new and expanding school food programmes as they recover from the pandemic.  It also can work in the opposite direction: detailing challenges that have yet to be successfully addressed can stimulate productive discussions with nations that have faced and overcome similar hurdles.

Above all else, this effort is timely. Countries and organisations the world over are signing onto the UN School Meals Coalition in recognition of the importance of equitable and well balanced school meal programmes. The UK is not yet a signatory, but one can only hope that this case study may be the turning point. The school meal programme in the UK is – and has always been – exemplary.

Donald Bundy is a World Food Programme school feeding senior adviser. This year, LSHTM is hosting the Global School Health Research Coalition to support governments in the scale-up of school health and nutrition programmes.

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