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A brief history of school meals in the UK: from free milk to Jamie Oliver’s campaign against Turkey Twizzlers

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 4 May 2023

Dinner ladies with white canteen hats dishing out plates of hot food to primary school students

Credit: Monkey Business / Adobe Stock.

Gurpinder Singh Lalli, University of Wolverhampton; Gary McCulloch; Heather Ellis, University of Sheffield.

Mashed potato, gravy, custard. When British people hear the words “school dinners”, it’s not always great memories that come to mind.

That’s not the case for everyone. Indeed France is known for its gourmet school lunches cooked by onsite chefs – bon appétit!

But in the UK people have been complaining about school meals for a long time. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver campaigned against cheap processed foods like “turkey twizzlers” in the early 2000s. And Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s prime minister in the 1970s, was nicknamed the “milk snatcher” when she was education secretary because she stopped free milk for children in schools.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, more children than ever before have become eligible for free school meals. In fact, 1.9 million children (22.5% of all school-age children in England) were eligible for free school lunches in 2022 – up from 17.3% in 2020.

Free school meals have long been used as a measure of poverty. Children are eligible if they come from families with low incomes or who receive certain benefits.

The provision of free school meals has become particularly significant as levels of child poverty in the UK have risen. And the pandemic highlighted the importance of ensuring that children from low-income families have access to nutritious meals. The government provided free meal vouchers to eligible children during school closures.

The issue of free school meals and school meals more broadly has also been the subject of controversy over recent years, with concerns raised about the adequacy of the meals provided and the nutritional quality of the food served.

From rationing to revolution

But problems with school meals goes back much further. In fact they started when the government first began offering meals to schoolchildren in 1906. Back then, local education authorities decided whether or not to provide meals and they were only for children who showed evidence of actual malnutrition.

It wasn’t until the second world war that the number of pupils who got school meals began to rise significantly. But even then, the meals weren’t great. Indeed, during this time, the government introduced rationing, which had a significant impact on school meals. As a result, meals were often limited to basic, low-cost ingredients such as vegetables, potatoes and bread.

In the post-war years, school meals underwent significant changes. The introduction of new technologies such as electric ovens and refrigerators meant that schools could provide more varied and nutritious meals and menus began to include meat, fish and desserts.

The 1970s saw a renewed focus on healthy eating and the introduction of official guidelines for school meals. These guidelines aimed to provide a balanced diet that included plenty of fruit, vegetables and whole grains.

But in the 1980s, things went downhill. The Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher introduced a policy of privatisation, which led to many schools outsourcing their catering services to private companies.

This move was criticised by many who felt that these companies were more interested in making a profit than providing healthy and nutritious meals to children.

Feeding the future

Since then, there have been several initiatives (including Jamie Oliver’s) to improve the quality of school meals in the UK, including the introduction of strict nutritional standards and the promotion of locally sourced and sustainable ingredients. But concerns about the quality of some meals still remain. Indeed many children continue to bring packed lunches to school instead.

This is why as part of our new research project we want to understand the problems with the school meals service and find ways to make it better. We’ll be looking at the experience of school feeding across generations and working with schools in the UK to study school meals today. The goal is to create a better school meals service that can meet the needs of the 21st century.

Overall, improving school meals in the UK will require a multi-faceted approach that addresses funding, food quality and sustainability. Most importantly, we need politicians to take a long-term, historically-informed approach to policymaking, so that past mistakes can be learned from and this knowledge used to inform decisions about school meals going forward. It’s our hope that this research will go some way towards achieving better nutritional standards for future generations.

This post was first published by The Conversation.

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