Hot meals or warm classrooms? UK schools face difficult choices as energy crisis bites

U.K. school caterers have warned that rising food costs and supply chain constraints could see children facing smaller portions in canteens, with low-income families the worst affected.
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As U.K. schools reopen for the autumn term, caterers are warning that children could be faced with smaller lunch portions and lower-quality dishes as the country’s cost-of-living crisis bites.

Rising food and energy costs are exacerbating existing challenges for school caterers, pushing many to “tipping point” and forcing schools to make “difficult choices” between heating classrooms and heating meals, food charities have said.

The price of energy has increased rapidly in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and amid wider supply constraints. It has led Britain’s energy regulator to raise the annual cap for domestic energy bills by 80% last month, and costs are also expected to surge for non-domestic properties like schools and hospitals.

The uptick is piling the pressure on school budgets — and catering stipends especially — which are already stretched amid higher labor costs, ongoing supply chain disruptions and the aftermath of Covid-induced school closures.

‘Turbulent times ahead’

The U.K. government provides free school meals for all state school pupils aged four to seven in England, as well as for older children from low income families. But when those allowances fail to cover food and cooking costs, it can fall to schools to find room in their budgets to cover the extras — or make cutbacks.

“We’re now reaching a tipping point. Headteachers are going to be faced with some difficult choices,” Rob Percival, head of policy at U.K. food health charity the Soil Association, told CNBC. “Schools have not only got to run a kitchen, but also keep classrooms warm.”

That could see more schools reducing meal options, switching to lower quality imports and exchanging hot meals for more energy-efficient cold ones,said Percival. Some have already moved away from oven-cooking and towards less expensive microwave cooking methods, he noted.

“It is likely that we’ll see a shift away from hot meals this winter, just when children need them most,” Percival said.

Caterers now have to be a bit more lean and cut down from four choices to three, or three to two.
Adam Curtis
co-founder, Dolce

Adam Curtis, co-owner of Dolce, a catering company which serves around 650 schools across England and Wales, said that orders for the first week of term have been in line with expectations, but he is bracing for an uncertain academic year.

“There’s no doubt that there’s going to turbulent times ahead,” Curtis said.

In June, the government said that school lunch funding — which is provided directly to schools who usually then outsource to private catering companies — would increase by 7 pence from ?2.34 to ?2.41 a meal, backdated to April 2022. The budget for means-tested free meals is ?2.47.

However, caterers and charities dubbed the 2.9% increase inadequate after failing to keep up with the rate of inflation, which hit a new 40-year high of 10.1% in August.

“You can’t cater for that amount,” said Curtis, calling the shortfall the latest setback following years of underfunding. “With inflation, it should be ?2.90.”

A spokesperson for the U.K.’s Department of Education did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

Switching items, cutting portions

Indeed, some caterers have already started making cuts, with the boss of major British caterer Bidfood warning in May that schools may have to choose between reducing meal sizes or using lower quality ingredients.

In a survey conducted last term, more than three-quarters (78%) of school caterers said they have had to reduce the options on their menus, according to LACA, the representative body for U.K. school food providers. Over half (55%) said that food quality will deteriorate in the new academic year if the situation does not improve.

A separate June survey by Soil Association found that around half (47%) of school meal providers were worried that they would be unable to meet legal food standard requirements if prices continued to rise. Even more (55%) said they expected they may have to use more processed foods to cut costs.

Food charities have called on the U.K. government to expand its free school meal program to more children as the country’s cost-of-living crisis intensifies.
Dan Kitwood | Getty Images News | Getty Images

“Caterers now have to be a bit more lean and cut down from four choices to three, or three to two,” said Curtis.

He added that many schools are increasingly opting for vegetarian options over meat-based dishes, more so for economic reasons than environmental ones: “The fact is, it’s less expensive.”

Dietician Lucy Upton said a failure to provide suitable meals that meet food standards could leave children lacking in key nutrients such as iron, fiber and vitamin C, and ultimately undermine their ability to learn in the classroom.

“Provision of well balanced meals and key nutrients are recognized to be associated with improved educational outcomes, such as end-of-year test performance scores and even improved school attendance. Reducing the nutritional quality of school meals and may compromise these benefits,” she said.

That could also have knock-on effects for children’s nutritional awareness as they move into adulthood, dietician Sarah Almond Bushell noted.

“These formative lessons stay with children for life, which means that they could make less healthy food choices as adults and suffers subsequent healthy consequences,” she said.

Calls for free meals to be expanded

Schools and catering groups are now urging the government to expand free school meals to more children, adding to the in-tray of tasks facing Britain’s new prime minister.

LACA has called for means-tested free school meals to be extended to all children whose families earn less than ?20,000 ($23,000) per year, rather than the ?7,400 after-tax threshold currently in place.

The cost-of-living emergency means it is now more important than ever for free school meals to be extended.
Jacquie Blake
national chair, LACA — The School Food People

“Too many children are falling through the cracks — they are not entitled to a school meal, but they are going hungry,” Jacquie Blake, national chair of LACA, told CNBC, noting that for lots of children the school lunch may be their only hot meal of the day.

“The cost-of-living emergency means it is now more important than ever for free school meals to be extended,” she added.

An extension of the program could also make school meals — once central to the school day — more viable over the long-term, according to Zoe McIntyre, project manager for children’s right to food at U.K. charity The Food Foundation.

“The very best thing we can do right now for catering teams as well as school children is to expand eligibility,” McIntyre said. “This would provide the economies of scale needed to help make the school meal system financially viable with a positive impact on the quality of school meals.”

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