Food & Drink Why British school meals are so terrible – and...

Why British school meals are so terrible – and always have been

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School dinners, like airline meals, have long been relegated to the bottom of the culinary ladder – in spite of the fact more than half of UK pupils have them daily, with 84 per cent eating them once a week, according to a 2023 report. Years ago, schools made their own. Sausage and mash and semolina with prunes peppered the menu. Then, in 1980, the Education Act cleared the way for private contractors to take over cooking responsibilities and by the Nineties and early Noughties the staples were Turkey Twizzlers and Potato Smiles, triggering Jamie Oliver’s healthy school lunch crusade in 2004.

His efforts appeared to work: then-prime minister Tony Blair committed £280 million to reforming lunchtime fare (a ban on Twizzlers at school also followed), but checks and balances have never officially been put in place. Vans full of heat-and-eat bags continue to pull up at schools across the country, in lieu of fresh produce.

Chef Jamie Oliver poses for a portrait shoot in London

“You have a service that has no real customer; no one is looking and checking,” Dimbleby says of this lack of regulation. “If the teachers aren’t really looking, the children don’t have a voice.”

Corinne Lambert*, who has taught in London schools for more than 30 years, says that while jacket potatoes (occasionally more palatable than those in Southampton…) and vegetables have become more common, most lunchtime options “are still pretty stodgy, and the veg is overcooked”. Fish-and-chip Fridays remain at her secondary, she adds – but with “more batter than fish, as far as I can tell”.

Cost is among the deciding factors for what private companies dish up, with caterers last year warning that they were “facing a precipice” due to rising prices; 38 per cent had reduced menu options as a result, while one in 10 admitted to reducing the nutritional value of their meals. (A few months later, photos of school lunches in Shrewsbury circulated, with pupils perturbed by their “nuked” pizza slices and cups of red “mulch.”)

The Government spends £2.53 on each free school meal, yet the more than two thirds of pupils who pay for theirs “can be charged as much as a school or caterer agree”, explains Naomi Duncan, the chief executive of Chefs in Schools. Are firms cutting corners to better their bottom line? “Companies operate in the environment they are allowed to – and so proper, enforced regulation is vital.”

Of course, the problem is not just that the food tastes bad – the impact it is having on children’s health is also in question. Following the School Food Plan’s publication in 2013, school food standards were set out promoting a diet high in fruit and veg, meat, fish, beans, eggs and dairy, with limited amounts of high fat, sugar and salt products.

And, on their individual websites, the six big contract caterers all insist they are committed to high nutritional standards, and work closely with schools to encourage healthy eating and exercise programmes.

Still, a 2019 report from charity Food for Life found that more than 60 per cent of schools were not meeting the guidance, with deleterious effects: the largest study of its kind, published in January, found that almost a quarter of children in Britain are obese on leaving primary school – a rise that could eventually cost the economy an estimated £8bn in additional healthcare needs.

British children eating at school

British children also have the highest rate of ultra-processed food consumption in Europe, with a 2022 paper showing that they account for 64 per cent of the calories in school-provided meals.

“A fundamental aspect of the school food system should be to deliver nutritious, delicious, sustainable food to support all children in school,” says Shona Goudie, advocacy and campaigns manager at charity the Food Foundation. “The importance of school food provision is undeniable, playing a critical role in providing children with the nourishment they need to thrive academically and grow up healthy.” According to the British Dietitians’ Association, a varied diet has been linked to better mood among teenagers, with good fibre intake capable of regulating blood sugar and improving attention.

Dimbleby acknowledges that overhauling school meals – and children’s health – is “not a magic thing” that can be achieved with a snap of even the most well-meaning head’s fingers. At Chefs in Schools, he says, the team “spent three years standing by the bin talking to the children, working out what they liked, what they didn’t like. Even if you serve the most amazing food, the children won’t necessarily eat it. You have to change the culture,” he says. That can only be done through education around food and eating habits.

Duncan says this has been done successfully in countries such as South Korea (where the adolescent obesity rate is 17.9 per cent), where a lunch programme “that was really, really heavily outsourced” has switched to one that, thanks to campaigners’ efforts, now focuses on children’s health.

“They have flipped that around completely,” she says. “All children get a meal in school every day, that meal is quite often made using homegrown ingredients, [and] each school will have a nutritionist attached to it. So all of that work has been done, and the kids are really involved.”

Countries including Japan, Sweden and Finland also have healthier school lunch practices than the UK, she adds.

Britain can follow suit – but there are structural problems that need to be dealt with first, Duncan thinks, such as “beefed up” food standards, and better enforcement. “Parents want their kids to eat a decent meal and to not be hungry, and to feel good about the food that they’ve eaten,” she says. “That’s not a difficult conversation, I don’t think.”

*Name has been changed

Which school meals do you remember that still make you shudder? And which bring back fond memories? Share your thoughts in the comments below

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