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Government buying standards for school meals need to focus on health and sustainability

News | Published  16 October 2023

Georgie Branch, Healthy Zones Programme Manager at Eating Better alliance member School Food Matters, explains how schools working with the charity have embraced less and better meat, and how government school food standards need to be improved.


What are the current school food standards?

School food standards exist to ensure that children have the energy and nutrition to thrive at school and they apply to all food served across the day in schools and academies in England. The standards state that meat must be served in schools on three or more days each week and currently restrict the amount of processed meat to once per week in primaries and twice per week in secondaries. 

However, we know that the school food standards are not being met. There is no mechanism for quality assurance or accountability to support schools in meeting them. As a result, children reported their schools being awash with sweets, fried foods and processed meats, all of which are restricted by the standards. 

What can schools do to reduce processed meat consumption?

Many schools have introduced plant-based options as part of lunchtime menus to help reduce their carbon footprint and improve children’s health. At School Food Matters, our Healthy Zones programme supports schools to create food environments that put children’s health centre stage. We’ve worked with many schools to introduce ‘plant-based’ days, where meat is excluded from the menu for at least one day per week. By offering more plant proteins, schools can use the cost savings to offset the increased price of serving higher welfare, unprocessed meat during the rest of the week. We want the government buying standards for school meals to reflect the sustainable, high welfare food that some schools are already striving to serve.

We also encourage schools to review the food being served across the whole day, including breakfast and after school clubs, to ensure they are meeting the school food standards. There is usually a disconnect and lack of communication about the food served in clubs and the food offered at lunchtime, sometimes resulting in processed meat being served multiple times throughout the week. 

Our Healthy Zones programme provides schools with training on the standards and supports them to create healthier menus in their breakfast and after school clubs. It’s important to bring the whole school community on board – teachers, students, parents, governors, and catering staff – with food policy and menu changes to ensure they are sustained. 

What next?

We want the government buying standards for school meals to reflect the sustainable, high welfare food that some schools are already striving to serve. School food standards need updating to reflect the needs of children’s health and the environment, which means reducing meat and sugar and increasing fibre consumption. We also need proper monitoring and accountability to ensure all children get quality nutrition wherever they grow up. 

Learn more about the work that School Food Matters is doing to improve the food being served in schools: