Schools are being forced to replace hot meals for the most vulnerable pupils with sandwiches due to the cost of living crisis, i can reveal.
Head teachers faced with increased food prices, and a real-terms cut in funding due to soaring inflation, are having to find savings by offering cheaper meal provisions.
i has been told by multiple sources of instances of hot meals – often the only substantial meal a vulnerable child has in a day – being replaced with sandwiches in order to keep costs down.
Other schools are left with the choice of offering smaller portions or making cuts to staffing and resources to absorb increased food costs.
Alternatively, schools will have to put up prices for paid-for meals. Campaigners have warned this will increase the financial strain on families ineligible for free school meals at a time parents are already getting into “school meal debt” because they are unable to keep up payments.
School meal funding for children in the first three years of schooling has increased by 4p to £2.34 a meal since 2014. This amounts to a £35 million real-terms cut – even before the 10 per cent rates expected in the coming months.
Magic Breakfast, which works to provide free breakfasts for children in need, said it was already seeing the impact.
“Last week, at a Magic Breakfast partner school in south London, the deputy head told us that maintaining the current level of food provision in her school is a priority and she believes it is not possible to make any further cuts to either the quantity or quality of school lunches,” Jacquie Bance de Vasquez, its director of policy and engagement, said.
“So savings will have to be made by cutting their budgets for teaching and staffing.”
She added: “With even greater numbers of children and families being impacted by the cost of living crisis, this situation will become even more acute.”
Campaigners have also warned rising food costs must not be passed onto families already struggling to pay for meals.
Currently, to be eligible for free school meals a household has to have a post-tax income of less than £7,400 a year, not including benefits.
Barbara Crowther, of the Children’s Food Campaign, said the “scandalously low threshold of eligibility” means families are getting into debt and being forced to opt out of school lunches.
“Every day the numbers of families struggling to pay for school lunches are increasing, whilst headteachers are reporting school meal debts are increasing,” she said. “This means there is a serious threat to take-up of school meals and viability of catering services if numbers fall.”
The Food Foundation, which campaigns to improve food policy, also warned of hot meals being replaced by cheaper, less healthy, alternatives. It said children could be left to “go hungry or fill up on cheap unhealthy food”.
Multiple studies have found that children with a good diet, and one hot meal a day, have better concentration and energy to learn.
“The situation is even more concerning for children who are currently missing out on free school meals due to the strict eligibility criteria – many of them will be having to have lower nutritional quality packed lunches or skipping lunch due to being unable to afford a school lunch,” Shona Goudie, a nutritionist at The Food Foundation, said.
Catherine West, Labour MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, said it was “becoming the norm” for schools to have to make cuts to food as the cost of living crisis and “unbelievable squeeze on household budgets” creates “the perfect storm of dwindling food portions and quality”.
She said school meals were a “lifeline for many families … I have spoken to local schools in my constituency and the rise in supplier costs is a deep concern for them.
“Although schools are, understandably, reluctant to reduce the portions they provide to children in many schools they have no choice.”
The Government said that all food must comply with the published School Food Standards, but individual contracts are managed by schools themselves.
A Government spokesperson said: “We recognise the pressures that some schools may face and have given them the autonomy to agree individual contracts with suppliers and caterers, using their increased core funding.
“This funding has gone up by £4bn in 2022-23 alone – a 7 per cent increase in cash terms per pupil from last year.
“Schools also have flexibility in the food they offer, under the School Food Standards. If a particular product is not readily available for any reason, the standards give schools and caterers the freedom to substitute in similar foods that are available.”