School caterers warn that more children are “falling through the cracks” because of the cost of living crisis, with many reporting a steep fall in the number of pupils able to pay for school meals amid rising food costs and shortages.
A survey by Laca, the school caterers trade body, revealed that beef and chicken were disappearing from school lunch menus because of rising prices, with many companies reporting that even staples such as potatoes and pasta were increasingly expensive and difficult to source.
Jacquie Blake, Laca’s national chair, said the results were alarming for policymakers, with government funding for free school meals (FSM) inadequate in the face of rising prices.
“Many school caterers are at breaking point. Without adequate funding for school meals the most vulnerable children will miss out on what in some cases is their only hot meal of the day,” Blake said.
“Caterers strive to provide hot and nutritious school meals but this is becoming increasingly difficult and is likely to only get worse in the coming months. Too many children are already falling through the cracks – their families cannot afford a paid school meal but they are not eligible for free school meals.”
The survey found that more than half of caterers reported a drop in demand for school lunches, despite also seeing a sharp rise in those receiving free school meals.
Blake said caterers supported extending eligibility for FSM in England. The government-commissioned National Food Strategy recently recommended that FSM be widened to include to children whose families earn less than £20,000 a year.
Only those from households receiving universal credit and earning less than £7,400 a year after tax are eligible at the moment. Among state school pupils in England, 22.5% now receive FSM, up from 20.8% last year.
The Department for Education (DfE) said: “This government has expanded access to free school meals more than any other in recent decades. We will also continue to keep eligibility under review and work across government to address rising costs.”
Caterers said they were finding it difficult to meet school food standards because of rising prices and food shortages – 90% of companies said they faced food shortages as a result of supply chain problems while average food costs had increased by 20% since April 2020.
The 168 companies surveyed by Laca in England and Wales – supplying school lunches to more than 1 million pupils – said beef was disappearing from menus because of cost, with chicken being replaced by turkey because it was cheaper. It said a survey of caterers in Scotland found “similar concerns”.
Four out of five caterers said they had changed their menus because of shortages, while a third said they had also reduced the choices available. Two-thirds of those surveyed said they were encountering shortages of tinned food, oil and pasta.
In England, the DfE recently raised daily payments for universal infant free school meals – received by all pupils in the first three years of primary school – to £2.41, and raised the rate of FSM to £2.47. Laca urged the government to increase the universal rate to match FSM, and for both to rise according to the rate of inflation.