Children's health and food

Serving up children’s health

1 October 2020

Opportunities and barriers in the school food system to prioritise nutritious food for our young people

In brief

This report looks at school food across a London borough, to better understand what children are actually being served every day. A total of 60 primary and secondary schools were visited to observe the food on offer, the food consumed, the wider school food environment and catering operations.

This on the ground research shows that while some schools and caterers have embraced the mandatory School Food Standards, many have struggled to apply them in practice. In other words, the Standards exist on paper but not on plates.


Executive summary

The principle behind the School Food Standards is that every child deserves access to the food they need to be healthy, no matter where they live or what sort of school they go to. Their first paragraph states that the Standards are “intended to help children develop healthy eating habits and ensure that they get the energy and nutrition they need across the whole school day.”

Achieving the baseline School Food Standards is therefore a minimum requirement for schools and caterers to meet, in order to serve fresh, balanced plates of school food. Unfortunately, without any formal monitoring compliance is patchy. While some schools and caterers have embraced the mandatory Standards, others have struggled to apply them in practice.

A nutritious diet plays a key role in children’s health and well-being. But it is something that young people from families on low incomes find much more difficult to access. It’s time to both review the Standards and commit to proper monitoring of their application. Access to nutritious food throughout the school day must be the norm for children, and in light of drastic changes to school life in the aftermath of COVID-19, this is the ideal time to put children’s health at the heart of the school food system.

This report not only highlights problems, it offers solutions - ways in which we can improve procurement, funding and accountability

Henry Dimbleby Co-founder Leon Restaurants, lead of National Food Strategy

As schools and academies adjust to a new normal, we have a unique opportunity to ‘build back better’, making bold changes to food provision that put young people’s health first. It is crucial that social distancing guidelines do not impact on pupil’s nutrition and that we find innovative ways to make healthy hot meals available to all who require them, rather than relying on packed lunches which, as we see later in this report, are not a balanced alternative.

With pupils eating at least one meal a day in school, and many having breakfast and snacks on site, school food can have a huge impact, both in the short and long-term, on their health. A well-functioning school food system should promote better health outcomes for all children – and in turn, happier lives.


Key findings

  • Currently there is a postcode lottery in the quality of school food our children are eating
  • Improving the quality of our school food benefits all children and is an important lever to close the gaps in health outcomes between children from the lowest income households and those from the highest
  • Complex funding structures for school food, combined with a lack of national guidance on good procurement means saving money is often prioritised by caterers and schools over children’s health
  • The School Food Standards are not monitored at school level and as a result, compliance is patchy, with nutritional quality of food compromised
  • National and local government have a greater role to play in supporting schools to adequately fulfil their responsibilities when it comes to providing nutritious school food
  • There are some great examples of caterers and schools using innovative techniques to design food and canteens that make healthy food options the most affordable and tasty. However, the system doesn’t incentivise this kind of practice, so it is the exception not the rule


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Read the 'Serving up children's health' report