Boy eating school food

Children's health and food

Children’s health first: making nutritional quality a priority in food subsidy schemes

14 January 2021
4 min read

Programme Director Sarah Hickey shares what we are doing to continue supporting families at risk of food insecurity as part of our COVID-19 response, and the reform we need to see to improve children's health.

Sarah Hickey
Sarah Hickey
Interim Executive Director

It was a bitter-sweet week for us at Impact on Urban Health, as we restarted our support for the Healthy Breakfast Box scheme. We are so happy to partner again with School Food Matters and Chefs in Schools on a project that delivered 624,200 nutritious meals to families at risk of food insecurity during school closures last year. However, the fact that at the start of 2021 there is more demand than ever for this type of scheme and other emergency food provision is devastating.

It has also been disheartening to see the poor quality of some food parcels being provided by school caterers this week. This has rightly caused public outrage. Children in lower income households were already lacking access to nutritious diets before COVID. The pandemic has put a higher number of families at risk of food insecurity. Low quality food subsidy provision widens these inequalities – and worsens their impact on children’s health – even further.


Our Healthy Breakfast Box scheme

We set up our Healthy Breakfast Box scheme last year. The scheme delivers a fortnight worth of breakfast ingredients to families that schools have identified as being at risk of food insecurity.  In a proportion of local schools, Chefs in Schools are also deploying their tried-and-tested lunch provision model as part of the scheme – partnering with a range of suppliers, including restaurants, to offer balanced lunch meals delivered weekly to families in need.

It was set up with the following aims:

  1. To meet the immediate and pressing need of families that were facing financial difficulty and as a result food insecurity. This need was further exacerbated when families were unable to access the meals usually provided in schools.

The scheme proved successful, delivering over 620,000 nutritious meals and at the end of 2020 UNICEF donated to School Food Matters so that breakfast delivery could continue during the Christmas holidays, recognising that the immediate need remains.

2. Our second aim was to test and demonstrate what an effective scheme looks like:

  • A consistent focus on children’s health: The food provision is analysed by a public health nutritionist to ensure they are nutritionally balanced and meet the School Food Standards – this was a strict criteria for selecting suppliers and the overall make-up of the boxes. The scheme was open to any family that a school identified as being at risk of food insecurity, not just those eligible for Free School Meals.
  • Deliverable and scalable: – in this case for suppliers and schools who were managing a huge range of logistics during school closures.
  • Provide value to families: We have received overwhelmingly positive feedback on the scheme from families who have described it as a lifeline in difficult times. School Food Matters and Chefs in Schools have made sure that the food provided appeals to an incredibly diverse population in Lambeth and Southwark, with a huge variety of food cultures.
  • Cost effective: The cost per breakfast works out at £1.20 and per lunch meal at 80p. Added value came from food businesses donating in kind, and the use of volunteers in delivery. We believe this is good value for money, given the potential health impact that at least one daily good quality meal can have on children’s diets and health.

The programme received positive feedback from both schools and families and ended up working with 108 primary and secondary schools in total (over half the schools in the boroughs). We restarted the scheme on 11th January and already have over 100 schools signed up, showing the scale of the need.

For school food, and across our wider children’s health and food programme, we continue to be fixated on how to achieve impact in practice. The media exposure around food parcels demonstrates that it is not enough to offer emergency food –  nutritional quality must be at the centre of provision.


Reform of the school food system is required

We fully support the Food Foundation’s calls for an urgent, comprehensive review into the school food system.

Our recent report, ‘Serving up Children’s Health’ shows that the existence of Free School Meal provision and School Food Standards are necessary, but insufficient policies, to ensure that healthy meals actually end up on pupils’ plates. We found that there were few incentives for the key players in the school food system – councils, school caterers, and schools themselves – to focus on nutrition. The recent free school meal parcels provided by some caterers, simply expose this fact and serves to highlight the urgent need for reform of the system, so that children’s health is put first.


What’s next?

This year, we want to build on the success of the healthy breakfast boxes to scope and prototype a longer-term healthy school breakfast programme in our area – one that captures all children at risk of poor diets, and one that has nutritional quality at its heart. We are also working with our school and charity partners and Southwark Council colleagues to see what other improvements we can make in the school food system – for example, in local commissioning, workforce training and the supply chain – to better align incentives around children’s health.

Our ultimate aim is to demonstrate practically what is possible for school food with wider policy changes. All children deserve access to the things they need to be healthy – that’s why we have policies like Free School Meals. It’s our collective job that this aspiration becomes a reality.

Child waiting for school dinner

Serving up children's health

How can we ensure children and young people are served nutritious food at school? New report details how School Food Standards aren't being consistently met, and suggests changes to the system that would put kid’s health first.

Read the report