2023: Blog – School meals through the ages

2023: Blog – School meals through the ages

We hear from ProVeg UK about the history of school meals in the UK, the progress that’s been made through the decades and about ProVeg’s School Plates Programme.

Today, 9 March, we celebrate the 11th International School Meals Day – an annual campaign that supports nutritious food for all children, regardless of their circumstances. For this year’s theme, ‘Our changing food – methods, menus and meals’,  we take a look at the history of school food in the UK, and what the future could look like.

It’s no secret that school food has never had the best reputation. Many of us will remember our school dinners and grimace – from turkey twizzlers to questionably pink custard, these meals weren’t exactly nourishing. And yet for many children, their only hot meal of the day would be the one they were served at school – a saddening reality that still remains true today.

A white plae with a meal of rice vegeatbles and sauce on it

The history of school meals

A bowl of broth with a gold spoon to the right
Image by Charles Chen via Unsplash

School lunches have been an important part of the British school system since 1906, when the Provision of Meals Act sought to provide free school meals for all children. It was widely believed that the British public were undernourished at this time, with many children coming to school hungry and unable to concentrate. After the act was passed, most local authorities began to provide a free breakfast, consisting of porridge, bread with meat dripping, and a glass of milk. 

School meals began to improve in the 1930s, as ‘classic’ dishes such as lamb stew and treacle pudding were introduced. Before the end of the Second World War, all constituencies were providing free school dinners. Of course, these weren’t the most exciting of meals. Rationing continued in the UK until the 1950s, which meant that processed foods became a school food staple due to their long shelf-life. Remember spam fritters? Well, this is where it all started. 

As rationing came to an end in the 1950s and the economy began to grow once more, free school meals were reserved only for families with the lowest incomes. During this period, around half of all pupils were eating some form of nutritionally-designed lunch. ‘Meat and two veg’ dishes were becoming increasingly popular, while desserts like jam roly poly were also added to menus.

The ‘beige age’

Chicken nuggets, chips and ketchup on a black plate
Image by Alfonso Charles via Pixabay

The 1980s were not the best of times as far as school food was concerned. In an attempt to reduce government spending, free school dinners and milk became a thing of the past for most children. Nutritional standards also declined as ‘the beige age’ took over, and school food became fast food. 

If it wasn’t highly processed or covered in breadcrumbs, it probably wasn’t on the menu. For many children, this was probably a welcome change for their taste buds, but they certainly weren’t getting the nutritious meals they needed. Despite austerity and rationing, school pupils in the 1950s were eating far healthier meals than those towards the end of the century.

Tackling the school food crisis

A group of young people wearing red jumpers and holding up fruit. An older young person wearing an apron and holding vegetables sits at the front
Pictured: Young Celebrity Chef Omari McQueen with pupils from Waltham Forest (ProVeg UK)

Thankfully, the era of turkey twizzlers and sugary drinks now mostly belongs to the history books . School Food has improved leaps and bounds over the past few decades. Celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver launched a TV series in the early 2000s examining the quality of Britain’s school dinners, exposing UK school food for the health crisis it was. Many schools started to ban junk food, and began to add healthier options to their menus. The Government began to take school food more seriously, and started to plan for positive change.

The School Food Plan came into effect in England in 2015, containing a new set of standards for school caterers to follow in order to provide more nutritionally-balanced meals. The current School Food Standards aim to ensure vegetables, protein, and unrefined starchy foods are key features of menus. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have their own set of guidelines, which have also seen significant improvement. 

Huge improvements in the provision of free school dinners are a beacon of hope. During the COVID-19 pandemic, footballer Marcus Rashford fronted a campaign to make free school meals more widely available, urging the government to take action. Thanks to the campaign, families across the UK were able to claim vouchers to provide children with lunches during the holidays. As Rashford continues to push for policy change, the government has recently announced that families with no recourse to public funds can access free school meals. Additionally, Sadiq Khan, The Mayor of London, announced last month that free school meals will be extended to every primary school pupil in the city for one year from September. In Scotland, children in primary 1-5 are already entitled to free school meals, with plans to extend the service to all primary pupils.

The future is plant-based

A group of catering staff in white uniforms, hats and hairnets standing with trays of food
Pictured: ProVeg UK’s catering partners showing off their plant-based menu options (ProVeg UK)

School Food has improved leaps and bounds in recent years – there’s no doubt about that. But there are still huge areas of concern that the government is yet to take action on. Namely, the need to make school menus more plant-based – for children’s health and that of the planet.

One in three UK primary school children are obese or overweight. Research shows that improving the nutritional quality and uptake of school meals is proven to reduce childhood obesity, and that plant-based diets are particularly effective in preventing the disease. Similarly, most UK children are fibre-deficient, with almost a third of children aged 5-10 eating less than one portion of vegetables per day. This can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, hypertension, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and several types of cancer.

UK schools currently serve 750 million meals every year, with most containing animal-based products. While meat and dairy products may have been an important part of school lunches 100 years ago, the same cannot be said for today. Not only are some animal-based products (such as red meat and processed meat) proven to cause chronic diseases such as cancer, but they’re also destroying the world our children will inherit.

Globally, animal agriculture is responsible for 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions. In the case of UK school catering services, , food production is responsible for 78% of emissions, with more than half of that attributed to meat. Most local authorities have declared a climate emergency, with many keen to address the climate through school meals. The good news is that this can be done – and we’re here to help.

School Plates: revolutionising school food

Young people read a cookbook
Pictured: The Recipes – ProVeg UK’s healthy and sustainable school cookbook (ProVeg UK)

In 2018, ProVeg UK launched its pioneering School Plates programme to make school food healthier and more sustainable. Since then, we’ve swapped over 8 million school dinners for plant-based and meat-free alternatives. Through our School Plates programme, we’re helping local authorities to increase the quantity and quality of plant-based school meals, toimprove childrens’ health, and protect their future.

Our calculations show that our plant-based school recipes emit just over a quarter of the carbon emissions of an average meat-based dish. They also contain plenty of protein, much more fibre, and less saturated fat. Many of the 40+ major catering partners we’ve worked with also saved money through our programme, and have had excellent feedback from children and parents.

It’s worth noting that we don’t have any turkey twizzlers or pink custard in the School Plates programme. But we do have over 35 delicious and nutritionally-balanced recipes for caterers to sample and add to their menus. From crunchy buffalo cauliflower wings to sticky beetroot brownies, we’ve got an amazing selection of dishes that have been taste-tested by kids and caterers alike. 

Whether it’s menu consultation or recipe development, our services are free of charge to caterers looking to revolutionise their menus. We’re all about seeing big impact through small changes, and, so far, it’s working wonders. 

Read more about our School Plates Programme on our website, or get in touch with us today at schools@proveg.com if you’d like to be a part of our school-meals revolution.

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