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Top tips for schools getting ready to deliver free school meals

Posted on 05 November 2013 .
Tags: children, children's nutrition, diet, food, free school meals, health, healthy eating, nutrition, school dinners

Last month at the Liberal Democrat party conference Nick Clegg announced that all children in the first three years of primary school will be entitled to free school meals.

So if you’re a school about to embark on this scheme, how will this work in practice? What will you have to do to prepare? What kind of challenges will you face?

Between 2009 and 2011, we worked in partnership with the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Bryson Purdon Social Research to evaluate pilots offering free school meals to all primary school children in Newham and Durham.

You can read the report on how these schools prepared for the pilot

The schools who took part in these pilots faced a number of challenges, here’s what you can learn from their experiences.

Preparation is key

Schools undertook the following activities to get ready for the pilots, they

  • added new kitchen appliances and equipment, and rearranged dining spaces to increase capacity.
  • increased the capacity of catering and lunchtime teams and trained staff in how to use the new equipment and work efficiently to prepare meals
  • reduced the number of options or tailored menus to suit pupils’ tastes in order to manage high demand
  • introduced a pre-order system so they could accurately predict demand for particular meals

Top tips for delivery

Here are some top tips on delivery from Schools that were successful …

  • Crowd control - Some schools experienced an increase in accidents and noise, exacerbated by the influx of reception pupils who were unfamiliar with school rules and routines. They overcame this by extending the lunch break by 5-10 minutes, staggering the lunch break so children in different years ate their lunch at different times and introducing a buddying system for new pupils.
  • Communicate - LA and senior school managers need to provide clear and timely information, to be available and responsive, to consult with staff and to provide regular updates.
  • Build efficient staff capacity - Having the appropriate levels of staff with the right skills is key!
  • Be prepared to trial new approaches - Schools found that they didn’t always find the right solution straight away. Trialling different approaches helped schools manage the increased volume.
  • Monitor demand - School Information Management System and cashless systems were a helpful resource in monitoring take-up. 
  • Find ways of encouraging pupils to take up the offer - Initiatives might include a pre-order system; a strict policy on who can bring in packed lunches; involving children in the menu; offering taster sessions; promoting meals to parents by emphasising the health and social benefits through assemblies, newsletters and open days.

You can read our full evaluation of what impact the pilots had on pupils

Schools that embark on this scheme might have their work cut out for them, but our research suggests it’ll pay dividends in the end.

Schools who took part in the pilot valued it for raising the profile of healthy eating and ensuring that their pupils got at least one healthy meal a day. It helped build their social skills at meal times and improvements were seen in pupil’s attainment at Key Stages 1 and 2. 

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