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From Maggie to Marcus: A history of free school meals

For 50 years the food on pupils’ lunch plates has been fought over by politicians, parents and even celebrities. We trace the history of this political hot potato and ask if we’re finally on the right track 
Marcus Rashford launched the Child Food Poverty Task Force to overhaul the free school meals system, including to expand them to every household on universal credit. Illustration: Matthew Brazier

For half a century, government policy around the provision of food to school children has been headline news. From Thatcher to Rashford, via Jamie Oliver, the provision of school meals, the nutritional standards, and what – if anything – they should cost has been subject to the wandering will of our political leaders.

This subject gets people exercised like few others. When school dinners are in the news, everyone tucks in. People pay attention. Remember when Oliver took on Turkey Twizzlers in 2005 as he campaigned for healthier school dinners?

Today, this remains a vitally important area. Why? For one thing, it is an investment in the future, an investment in young people.

One in three children are leaving primary school overweight or obese, which puts them on a path to diet-related diseaseJamie Oliver

By ensuring children attending school are properly fed and can therefore focus on their work rather than their rumbling stomachs, nutritious school meals are a tried and tested way to improve academic performance and their chances in life.

“Kids are at school 190 days of the year,”  Oliver, celebrity chef and veteran campaigner for better school meals, tells The Big Issue. “That’s a lot of meals and a big opportunity to have a positive impact.

“But right now, one in three children are leaving primary school overweight or obese, which puts them on a path to diet-related disease. Think type-2 diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer. We can and we must do better. By looking after what our kids are eating at school, we’re giving them the best chance of thriving beyond.”

A mum and her kids campaigning for milk supplies in 1939. free school meals
Mothers and children on a milk demonstration, London, 1939.
A mum and her kids campaigning for milk supplies in 1939. Image: Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/Getty Images

Dr Lawrence Haddad is executive director of GAIN, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, recipient of the 2018 World Food Prize for his work on maternal and child nutrition, and Chair of Bite Back 2030 – a youth-led campaign group on child health.

He says: “The nutrition of school pupils is important for a number of reasons. First, many kids don’t get regular meals at home, so it is vital they do at school. Second, it is important that these meals are nourishing. This can help kids get used to the idea of what a balanced meal actually looks like rather than foods rich in grease, salt and sugar. Third, well-nourished kids are more focused on learning – when you are chronically hungry or suffering from iron deficiency you cannot focus on anything else.”

Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the furore over free school milk being taken from most younger school pupils, we talked to experts about half a century of school food provision and what the future should hold.

Milk, Maggie and the ‘no nutritional standards’ era

In 1941, the first National School Meals policy was introduced, with dietary guidelines on protein, fat and calories. Then, in 1944, the provision of a school meal that was “suitable in all respects as the main meal of the day” and milk became a statutory duty for local authorities under the new Education Act.

But in June 1971 Margaret Thatcher, education secretary in Edward Heath’s government, put forward her plan to remove the provision of free school milk for over-sevens at junior school. Although unpopular with many, and leading to the jibe “Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher”, it became law in September.

Haddad says: “The abandonment of free school milk for over-sevens in 1971 and then for all in 1980 was not a good thing. In fact the 1980-2000 period is called the ‘no nutrition standards era’ for school meals and represents an act of extraordinary self-harm.”

By 1980, Thatcher was prime minister and able to complete the job with a new Education Act, not only removing free school milk from all children, but removing minimum nutritional standards and the obligation for Local Education Authorities to provide a comprehensive meals service. Instead, food was only required to be provided for children from families receiving welfare support – and the numbers of children eligible for free school meals was drastically reduced.

Haddad explains why this was so costly for so many. “The economic benefit cost ratios (pounds returned for pounds invested) of getting vitamins and minerals to children are routinely estimated to be 6:1 and all the way to 36:1 depending on the foods and the age and malnutrition of the child.

“Investment in this ‘grey matter infrastructure’ leads to better productivity and more income generated, but this was forsaken in the 1980s for investment in other types of infrastructure.”

The Education Act in 1980 also tendered school meals provision out to private companies, which meant that over time many schools lost the ability to produce food on site as private contractors took over, cutting costs and nutritious content.

The Education Act of 1980 saw the feeding of children as a commercial enterpriseProfessor Wendy Wills, University of Hertfordshire

“There was this kind of fundamentalism that privatising would inevitably lead to a better service which was more ideological than based on any kind of evidence,” says Professor Corinna Hawkes, director of the Centre for Food Policy at City University, London.

But this move towards outsourcing continued. The Social Security Act (1986) saw more than half a million children from low-income families lose their entitlement to free school meals. There were now no statutory nutritional standards, standardised price structures, nor even the requirement to provide a meal for all children. The comprehensive system of school meal provision had ended and had been replaced by huge variation depending on local authority.

Professor Wendy Wills, professor of Food and Public Health at University of Hertfordshire, says: “The Education Act of 1980 significantly impacted how food provision was both viewed, and subsequently delivered in schools in England, seeing the feeding of children as a commercial enterprise rather than an issue of social justice, education and an intervention to sustain children’s health.”

When Jamie met Tony

“When we first started campaigning, there were standards for dog food, but not for school food. Can you believe that?” Jamie Oliver tells The Big Issue, looking back on his time as school dinner champion. 

There was a change of direction when Tony Blair became PM in 1997. By 2000, the Food Standards Agency was established. And in 2001, new nutritional standards were introduced for school meals.

“The reintroduction of these standards in 2001 was a great day,” says Haddad. “Jamie Oliver did a great job in the 2000s of reminding schools that good food did not have to be expensive food.”

Oliver meets PM Tony Blair in 2005 to press for healthier school meals for kids. free school meals
British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver (L)
Oliver meets PM Tony Blair in 2005 to press for healthier school meals for kids. Image: RUSSELL BOYCE/AFP via Getty Images

But too many school dinners were still not meeting these new standards… until Oliver used his platform and his new television series Jamie’s School Dinners in 2005 to campaign for an improvement. And not for the last time in this school dinner odyssey, a famous figurehead provoked a popular outcry and a political response.

After Jamie’s School Dinners became the most talked about television show of the year, Tony Blair met Oliver and pledged to rebuild school kitchens so meals could be cooked from scratch, as well as help staff – like Nora at Kidbrooke School, near Greenwich in South London, who was the breakout star of the series – improve their culinary skills.

Jamie Oliver’s campaign was important because it raised the public profileProfessor Corinna Hawkes, Centre for Food Policy

“Every child deserves the opportunity to live up to their full potential and it’s been proven time and time again that good food is the backbone of good health,” says Oliver. “After our school dinners campaign, English scores rose by six per cent and the number of authorised absences due to illness fell by 15 per cent.”

For Hawkes, this was the start of a long-overdue modernisation and improvement. 

“In terms of key moments, I do think the standards that were introduced from 2006-09 were important in setting the principle that school food should be healthy in a more comprehensive way,” she says. 

“Jamie Oliver’s campaign was important because it provided so many learnings and raised the public profile. The issue was not just about what was being served, but about the role of the catering staff and how parents worried about kids not eating the healthier food.”

“Every child deserves the opportunity to live up to their full potential and it’s been proven time and time again that good food is the backbone of good health,” says Oliver. “After our school dinners campaign, English scores rose by six per cent and the number of authorised absences due to illness fell by 15 per cent.”

For Hawkes, this was the start of a long-overdue modernisation and improvement. 

“In terms of key moments, I do think the standards that were introduced from 2006-09 were important in setting the principle that school food should be healthy in a more comprehensive way,” she says. 

“Jamie Oliver’s campaign was important because it provided so many learnings and raised the public profile. The issue was not just about what was being served, but about the role of the catering staff and how parents worried about kids not eating the healthier food.”

The school food plan – featuring Nick Clegg

Oliver was not finished in his campaigning, by 2013, with the coalition government in place, he was part of the team pushing forward with the School Food Plan – headed by restaurateurs Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent.

Oliver says: “The School Food Plan in 2013 was a big one in establishing proper standards for what kids were eating. The problem right now, 16 years after we first started campaigning, is that there’s still no enforcement of the standards. That’s one of the reasons why a lot of school food charities are calling for a proper review so we can make sensible changes to set the stage for nutritious meals for every kid at school.”

And in England from September 2014 (January 2015 in Scotland), all children in the first three years of school were entitled to a free school lunch under plans drawn up by deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who proclaimed: “This is one of most progressive changes to our school system for a long time.”

Rashford tackles food poverty

Despite these changes, school food standards still varied. The break-up of the comprehensive school meal service begun by Margaret Thatcher’s ‘milk snatcher’ changes half a century before meant that even though some schools were doing brilliant work, others were lagging behind.

In 2019, Food For Life – which works with schools, nurseries, care homes and hospitals around a core ethos of healthy, tasty and sustainable food, produced a State of the Nation report. It found at least 60 per cent of secondary schools were failing to comply with School Food Standards and that UK families eat the most ultra-processed diet in Europe. 

By March last year, we needed a new hero. And up stepped footballer Marcus Rashford. He got involved with charity FareShare UK to raise money and awareness to tackle child food poverty. Using the profile that comes with paying for Manchester United and England, and the ideals and compassion instilled in him by his mother, he had soon raised £20m, which could feed three million vulnerable people the free school meals they were missing during lockdown.

“Trust me when I say, I will keep fighting until no child in the UK has to worry about where their next meal is coming from,” he wrote at the time.

He was true to his word, penning an open letter to MPs asking them to rethink plans to cancel the food voucher scheme during the summer holidays and forcing the government into a climbdown.

He also launched the Child Food Poverty Task Force to put pressure on the government to implement key recommendations of Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy – to expand free school meals to every household on Universal Credit, expanding holiday provision, increasing the value of Healthy Start vouchers and expanding them to reach more people.

Haddad says: “It is sad that a 23-year-old elite athlete has to be so vocal to get the government to pay attention to this issue.

There are so many civil society organisations doing important work in this space and it is just too easy for the government to ignore them because they cannot make the government look sufficiently bad in the eyes of the voters. Marcus Rashford can, and has. But I wish he did not have to, to be honest.”

Oliver is also a fan – but like many others, questions why it takes a footballer to sting the government into action.

“Marcus has done a brilliant job making waves on this issue,” says Oliver. “There’s also a lot of amazing stuff happening on the ground and that’s why, wherever possible, I’m trying to amplify other people’s voices.

“Some absolutely amazing young campaigners are calling for change based on their own experiences and the food they see around them at school, online and on the high street.

“Bite Back 2030 is a youth movement I co-founded to empower future generations and they inspire me every single day. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the government listened to the young people who were actually affected by this stuff, rather than the people with the biggest ‘influence’ in the media?

He was true to his word, penning an open letter to MPs asking them to rethink plans to cancel the food voucher scheme during the summer holidays and forcing the government into a climbdown.

He also launched the Child Food Poverty Task Force to put pressure on the government to implement key recommendations of Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy – to expand free school meals to every household on Universal Credit, expanding holiday provision, increasing the value of Healthy Start vouchers and expanding them to reach more people.

Haddad says: “It is sad that a 23-year-old elite athlete has to be so vocal to get the government to pay attention to this issue.

There are so many civil society organisations doing important work in this space and it is just too easy for the government to ignore them because they cannot make the government look sufficiently bad in the eyes of the voters. Marcus Rashford can, and has. But I wish he did not have to, to be honest.”

Oliver is also a fan – but like many others, questions why it takes a footballer to sting the government into action.

“Marcus has done a brilliant job making waves on this issue,” says Oliver. “There’s also a lot of amazing stuff happening on the ground and that’s why, wherever possible, I’m trying to amplify other people’s voices.

“Some absolutely amazing young campaigners are calling for change based on their own experiences and the food they see around them at school, online and on the high street.

“Bite Back 2030 is a youth movement I co-founded to empower future generations and they inspire me every single day. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the government listened to the young people who were actually affected by this stuff, rather than the people with the biggest ‘influence’ in the media?

School dinners – the future?

Turkey Twizzlers are back in the freezer aisle and Marcus Rashford is busy at the European Championships. 

But do not be afraid. Our experts have big ideas for the future of school meal provision. 

And they see a future in which food and food education are woven into the fabric of school life. By combining learning about the impact of food on our bodies with its impact on the planet is just one of the ways in which a healthy new generation can grow in our schools.

Oliver says: “The past year has shown us how important health and resilience are to each and every one of us, and I believe we have a collective responsibility to ensure our children have the best start in life.”

And the past year has provided fresh impetus to make changes. Wills says: “The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a sad, but ultimately helpful light on to the issue of food equity and the barriers that hinder the families with greatest need accessing nutritious and socially acceptable food. This, I hope, will ensure dialogue continues about the need for universally available ‘free school meals’, which sends a message to children and families that ALL children should eat well during the school day.”

Hawkes adds: “School meal provision is not just about providing healthy food. It’s about providing an environment in which children feel valued and where children learn to value healthy and tasty food and are educated about food.

“So the most important change that needs to be made is an expansion of the mindset from ‘Is the food there and does it conform with nutritional standards?’ to ‘How does school meal provision provide for, engage and educate children?’

“School meals should reflect a deep commitment to food as a fundamental part of education for future generations.”

Schools should build food into lessons on geography, history, sciences, media studies, PE, and literatureDr Lawrence Haddad, GAIN

Haddad says: “Kids spend a third of their most formative 10 years at schools, so it is vital that schools are a place where they can learn about food: where it comes from, the choices about how it is grown, processed and consumed, and the impacts those choices can have on climate emissions, decent jobs, human health, and culture.

“Poor diet is the leading cause of ill health the world over, responsible for one third of climate emissions and employs two billion people. It is central to everything we do. Everyone – especially kids – has a chance to change the food system. 

“The Act4Food, Act4Change global youth movement is a great example. Kids should sign up to that and demand better from their politicians, businesses and schools. Children are most affected by food choices made by governments and businesses, but they have no formal say in those choices. They need to grab the informal space.

“Schools should build food into lessons on geography, history, sciences, media studies, PE, and literature. Schools are the second place, after the family setting, where kids can learn about food – developing a food literacy that will serve them, their families and their communities for life.”

For more info visit biteback2030.com