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School Kitchens Open Up to Embrace Free School Meals in 2014


schools mealsThis year is the year of revolution in the kitchens at every infant and primary school across the country. The education secretary, Michael Gove, and the schools minister, David Laws, have decided that the benefits of a warm meal over packed lunch are immense and therefore have to be addressed by the English government. Their brand new policy aims to start funding school lunches by September 2014, a fact that can help schoolchildren in more than one way.

The Impact of School Lunches on Pupils

Henry Dimbleby, who both with John Vincent co-authored a study entitled School Food Plan, expressed his happiness on passing the new policy in a recent Guardian article. Researching their way through the English schools and their kitchens, Dimbleby and Vincent saw the impact of school lunches on the pupil's behavior. In his article, Dimbleby demonstrates the potential of a warm meal during school hours by saying: “Nutritional intake improved dramatically, as pupils swapped packed lunches for hot meals. Academically, too, children at these schools quickly moved ahead of their peers elsewhere, by almost a term.”

Free School Meals Influence the School Atmosphere

Another point of impact is the removal of social stigma held over children that were already benefiting from free school meals. Dimbleby points out that it was this group of poorest children that showed the most evident improvement after the introduction of common free meals that enhanced the social atmosphere in schools. The headteacher of one of the schools that took part in pilot scheme, County Durham, emphasized the social influence of free school lunches: “The culture in the school improved in subtle but important ways. It's been great to avoid the old them-and-us divisions of the packed lunch kids going off to eat separately from the school lunch children.”

The Problems at Hand and How to Solve Them

What the government has to face with the introduction of this new policy is a few significant problems. There's the one related to the school's logistics and the fact that school kitchens don't usually cook for large numbers of pupils. Moreover, some schools might have to extend their lunch hour, change the ways they serve food in order to manage queues, or find the place to store the alimentary products for their daily lunches. Some kitchens will have to be improved or simply built from scratch, and the government has announced a £150m grant to help fund the new facilities or revamp the old ones.

Alison Young, responsible for planning the pilot project for Durham County, admits that logistics and organization need to be taken seriously in the implementation of the free lunch policy. "Many people feel that schools today cannot cope logistically with higher take-up. It's not true,” she says, adding that with eight months at hand, planning the venture should not cause any problems.

No Shortcuts in Free School Meals

Some schools, worried about their kitchen's potential, have asked whether serving a cold meal, such as a sandwich and a yogurt, could still do the trick. Dimbleby answers plainly to this question: no. “First, it would be much less popular and take-up would be lower, meaning that you would get neither the advantages of scale nor the benefits of bringing everyone together in a busy, vibrant dining area,” he says, and adds: “Second, it would be nowhere near as nutritious. In September, a new set of standards for school food will be rolled out across England. It will be next to impossible for schools to meet these standards by providing a packed lunch every day.”

As you can see yourself, the implementation of this policy is a hard nut to crack, but the promising long-term effects of good nutrition and pleasant atmosphere at school are more than worthy the try. Dimbleby asserts the importance of the policy in the potential to transform the culture of the English primary schools, and therefore the lives of children who could benefit from free school meals, a fact that would facilitate their schooling experience and output.