In the home, you have control over what your children eat and where it comes from. But when they go off to school, how much say do you have over their lunch? As a minimum, are their meals being made from scratch using fresh ingredients? And if they are, are the vegetables they are eating seasonal? Is the meat raised to high welfare standards?

Over the past 10 years this has been a high profile issue, with chefs such as Jamie Oliver working to tackle the amount of processed food and lack of fresh ingredients in school meals and highlighting how important this is for children’s health. To help you navigate this issue, we’ll look at what mandatory standards schools must conform to, as well as the more aspirational standards that can be worked towards. While it, arguably, shouldn’t be the responsibility of parents to ensure that children are eating well at school, there is insufficient action being taken by the government and local authorities on the issue, and it is an area where parents and teachers can exert influence and bring about change on a local level.

The current situation

The first step is to find out what food is currently being served and the quality of it. The minimum standards that most schools must conform to are those laid out in the School Food Plan. Coming into place in January 2015, these were a definite step in the right direction, limiting the amount of fried food schools can serve, setting requirements on the amount of fruit and veg in meals, and encouraging the use of wholegrains. However, they do not include any restrictions on where the ingredients are purchased from, nor requirements to meet organic, animalwelfare or other standards.

It is important to establish whether the school has an on-site kitchen or if the food is cooked by an off-site provider (often required if the school doesn’t have sufficient facilities). Secondly, are the kitchen staff in-house (employed by the school), or are they using a private or external caterer? Caterers vary hugely; some provide high quality and nutritious food, others just conform to the minimum standard. Do some research and see what you can find out about them, the quality of the food, their sourcing principles and values. A key consideration is how much of the meal cost they put into ingredients – some not-for-profit caterers will spend up to half the meal cost on this, enabling them to buy much higher quality ingredients for the same overall meal cost.

Another important factor to find out is the length of the current contract, who the contract is with – is it between the school and caterer, or through the Local Authority? – and when it is up for renewal. If the school is tied into a contract with an existing caterer for a significant length of time, your efforts may be best directed towards trying to improve the current offering of that caterer. If the contract is up in the next year or less, perhaps focus on ensuring the contract is awarded to a better provider. This is precisely what parent Stephanie Wood did in the Kingston and Richmond boroughs in London when she started School Food Matters. She engaged parents and head teachers by pointing out the poor quality of the existing school meals, and worked hard to provide a better model to local authorities. New contracts were awarded, resulting in school dinners being made on site or to the same standard, and from much higher quality ingredients. The uptake of school meals increased almost 100% since the change, and, remarkably, with the cost of the meals in Richmond dropping by over 38p a meal. 

How to improve

Once you’ve established the current situation, it’s helpful to know what you’re aiming for. The most widely recognised good food standard across the UK is the Soil Association (SA) Food for Life. This standard looks at a wide variety of different issues, from cooking from scratch and the healthiness of the food, to the provenance and standards of the ingredients themselves. The Bronze standard is a good baseline, setting basic animal welfare standards and requiring free-range eggs as an example. However, the focus on local and organic ingredients becomes much more central at the Silver and Gold levels. For the Gold standard, 15% of ingredient spend must be organically certified (5% for Silver), and there are points for every penny that is spent on food produced in the local region. There are over 10,000 schools signed up, with 1.6 million meals served up in schools every day, of which two-thirds of these are at the Silver or Gold standard.

While the SA’s Food for Life offers a significant improvement on the minimum standards, there are many who feel like the standards could go much further, especially around organic certification and local sourcing.

Farm to fork

A lot of catering contractors work with large national companies to supply their ingredients, often under rigid contracts that tie the caterers into sourcing most of their ingredients through that company. To improve provenance of the food, more flexible contracts are needed to allow contractors to source some of their produce locally.

When it comes to procurement for larger contracts (such as local authorities), the process can be difficult for local producers to engage with, with challenges including long contracts and complicated paperwork. In Bath and North East Somerset, fresh-range are working to make this possible by acting as a technology and logistics partner alongside the local authority. They’ve developed a Dynamic Purchasing System that qualifies new local producers against a balanced scorecard for sustainable procurement. This enables producers to enter at any point during the contract and compete on price for different products, while reducing the challenges around logistics. In September 2016, they started delivering to over 35 kitchens across the region, with the subsequent food reaching almost 60 schools. Cooks place their order through an online store, which is then fulfilled by the network of more than 12 local producers and suppliers, helping these producers access a new market.

Creating change

If you’ve decided that you want to improve the food served in your child’s school, but you’re not sure how, Food For Life have a parents pack, including sample letters for you to send to your head teacher. If it’s a local authority contract, write to the cabinet member for education.

School Food Matters has twelve tips to help parents get good food into the school, which includes recommending going into the school and eating lunch with your child. Seek out inspiring examples nearby – check the Food For Life website to find a nearby school that has high quality meals and organise a visit, aiming to speak to kitchen staff and children to find out what they think.

One point worth noting is that the food served can also impact the Ofsted rating a school receives, which can be a great motivation for schools. “Inspectors will look for evidence of a culture or ethos of exercise and healthy eating throughout their entire inspection visit, in classrooms as well as the school canteen. They will look at the food on offer and visit the canteen to see the atmosphere and culture in the dining space and the effect it has on pupils’ behaviour.”

An important step is to collaborate with other people wherever possible to create a louder voice. Whether that’s other parents, governors and teachers at your school, or thinking bigger and teaming up with other schools and council officers, you are more likely to bring about change working together. Once you’ve got your group, School Food Matters suggest forming a School Meals Working Party, so goals can be agreed and a plan of action made. If you are building a group with other schools, the Dynamic Food Procurement Board can help advise around supporting a procurement system that is more available to local producers.

An example of how far a school can come is Ashley C of E School in Walton-on-Thames. When Richard Dunne joined as headmaster, school lunch uptake was at 27%, with meals pre-cooked by council caterers. Inspired to do something better, he involved the parents and children in the changes he made to the school, with everyone bringing in packed lunches while a new kitchen was constructed. Parents also agreed to a 10p increase in the cost of meals, allowing for local and organic ingredients to be used. The children were an integral part of the decision-making, and a growing program was implemented too, where each school year takes responsibility for a different part of the school garden, from flowers to fruit and veg.

Most importantly, don’t forget to include the children in the process. A School Nutrition Action Group should include pupil representatives, giving them an opportunity to feed in with their thoughts and engage with the process.

Photograph: Cheshire East Council