The school food sector is facing considerable challenges due to rising costs, creating concerns that catering firms may have to withdraw from contracts before the new academic year begins. A 20% increase in food prices, along with higher staff and energy costs, has led to warnings that students will receive lower quality meals in September while caterers search for more cost-effective options. Although the UK government recently announced a 7p increase in funding for universal infant free school meals (UIFSM), from £2.34 to £2.41, activists have called the move insufficient, arguing that it does not cover inflation and applies only to children in reception and their first two years of primary education. Small catering firms in the school food industry, which do not benefit from economies of scale, are considered particularly vulnerable to rising costs.
The Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA), which represents over 3,000 providers delivering three million lunches daily to 22,000 schools, has claimed that firms may struggle to uphold school food standards without more government backing. "LACA has long called for an increase to a minimum of £2.47 [for UIFSM], in line with [other] free school meal funding, and for this to rise annually with inflation," said a LACA statement. "Without this increase, our members have made it clear that they will find it hard to meet the school food standards in September.” Catering manager Matthew Knight of Hillstone Primary School noted that rising costs had already forced his team to consider restructuring their menu and potentially cutting educational services for pupils.
Transformations in School Nutrition: Cost-effective Meals
As school districts confront budget constraints, caterers are implementing innovative strategies to save on menu expenses. One solution is adding pulses such as red lentils to beef mince to enhance its volume and decrease the cost. Moreover, caterers are also integrating protein substitutes to reduce costs.
Lamb is now off the menu for being too pricey. With the cost of white fish going up, the majority of which is acquired from Russian waters, pollack and coley are now being used as alternatives to fish fingers. A caterer suggested that we must get used to having grey fish fingers.
To keep prices low and cost-effective, pricier fruits like melon and strawberries are now being replaced by more cost-efficient options like apples and oranges.
Although buying British is preferred, one school food supplier reports that it may not be feasible due to the high costs. In such cases, opting for cheaper EU-sourced chicken may be essential.