Students from Sir Thomas Wharton Academy take part in groundbreaking research on school meals

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New research, conducted by secondary school pupils, including a group from Sir Thomas Wharton Academy, Doncaster, shows that students dependent on the Free School Meals (FSM) allowance, struggle to get fruit and veg and often need to spend scarce resources on bottled drinks.

The project was led by The Food Foundation and University of York as part of the FixOurFood programme.

The A Better Deal for Free School Meals research was conducted by forty-two students aged 11-15 from seven secondary schools across Yorkshire. Though not necessarily on FSM themselves, they were tasked to only spend the FSM allowance each day for a week and purchase the most healthy and sustainable options, whilst recording their purchases.

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The students attended an event on Wednesday 29th November in Parliament to present their findings to a group of MPs and parliamentarians. The findings were:

Sharon Hodgson MP with students from Sir Thomas Wharton Academy.Sharon Hodgson MP with students from Sir Thomas Wharton Academy.
Sharon Hodgson MP with students from Sir Thomas Wharton Academy.

The amount which children received on their accounts varied, even though the allocation from government is fixed at £2.53. Children received between £2.15 and £2.70. Children

often received this allocation just before lunch so it could not be used in the mid morning break. Not being able to get any food until lunchtime can mean young people get very hungry during the morning lessons, particularly if they have not eaten breakfast.

Those students who were able to buy items at breaktime, then didn’t have enough left on their allowance to buy a meal at lunchtime.

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Not having the same choices as their peers can make students feel excluded and stigmatised.

Unclear pricing causes problems in the canteen.

Students described feeling under pressure as they approached the counter not knowing if they would be asked to put items back as they were out of their budget.

Children on FSM rely heavily on the meal deal. Meal deals are priced at the level of the FSM allowance and usually include a main course, pudding and bottled drink.

Whilst this encourages students to get a full meal, it means that precious resources are being spent on bottled, often sweetened drinks in plastic bottles (which are rarely recycled).

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Students reported that the meal deals contained limited vegetables, had few vegetarian options and often salads and fruit weren’t included. On one day in the week, not a single portion of fruit was purchased by any of the young researchers (7 schools and 42 young researchers). In 4 out of 7 schools, no fruit was purchased by the young researchers over the entire week.

If not opting for the meal deal, students can purchase single, “grab and go” items.

Over a third of the lunches purchased included a baguette /sandwich / panini / wrap. A quarter included pizza.

Excluding tomato sauce (i.e. on a pizza), over half the lunches purchased by the young researchers were not recorded to contain any vegetables.

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Currently only children from households with an income below £7,400 a year (after tax, before benefits) are eligible for Free School Meals after Year 2; a threshold that has

not increased since 2018. This is despite inflation reaching an all-time high in the last twelve months and the most deprived families continuing to feel the impact of the cost-of-living crisis most acutely.

This research shows that expanding eligibility of Free School Meals should go hand in hand with driving up school food standards for ensuring children who are on a limited budget can secure a nutritious meal.

Annie Connolly, Citizen Engagement Manager, The Food Foundation, said: “This research gives us a valuable insight into what it’s really like to receive FSM from a student's perspective. FSM are a crucial nutritional safety net for many young people across England so it’s important we ensure students are getting a balanced meal.

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“About a third of a child’s food intake happens during the school day, and we know many children aren’t able to eat as well at home as a result of the cost of living crisis.

If simple changes can be made to improve the standards of school food, whilst also extending eligibility, this could have a hugely positive impact on the health of the next generation.”

The Food Foundation is calling for Government to:-

· Mandate that all FSM funding passed from local authorities or Multi-Academy Trusts to schools is ring-fenced for school meal provision.

· Amend the School Food Standards to include:

· A requirement to offer two or more portions of vegetables with every meal. This would bring England’s Standards in line with those in Scotland, Wales and Northern

Ireland.

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· Ensure that ‘grab and go’ items (e.g. sandwiches and pizza) include a portion of vegetables.

· Roll out a nationwide monitoring system to support compliance with School Food Standards.

· Introduce a ‘water-only’ recommendation for all schools to allow more resources to be allocated to food. Ensure schools have adequate funding to provide and maintain

water fountains.

· Extend the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme to all year groups, up to and including Year 11.

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· Provide support for schools to be able to recycle food packaging in line with the Department for Education’s Sustainability and climate change: a strategy for the education and children’s services systems. In order to improve the experience of students receiving FSM, schools (and caterers where appropriate) should:

· Ensure that all items are priced clearly and that up-to-date menus are available online and in school, to enable students to make decisions before the point of

purchase.

· Provide flexibility on when the FSM allowance can be spent throughout the school day, and allow unspent allowance to be accrued on a student’s account.

· Reduce disposable food packaging, in order to work towards a more sustainable school food system.

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