Free school meals – a healthy and sustainable school meal system

Before the summer break, Cynnal Cymru hosted a second roundtable looking at the implementation of universal free school meals (uFSM) in primary schools in Wales.

Informed by the experience in Sweden, where all primary and pre-school meals are tax-financed, we heard how the City of Malmo increased the amount of organic food served to 70% within 10 years, whilst also achieving a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGe) on 2002 levels. This was complemented by insights from Castell Howell Foods, an independent food wholesaler supplying 1,800 schools and the majority of local authorities in Wales.

This roundtable was held as part of our work on behalf of Welsh Government to support the foundational economy in Wales. Here are 8 of the key messages that emerged.

1. Systems change requires collaboration across policy area

The goal to provide organic food in uFSM in Malmo was driven by the Environment Department, however buy-in and cooperation from the departments for Health and Education was crucial. It was part of a wider vision for the City’s food system published in 2010 that set out that by 2020:
o All food served in Malmo should be certified organic
o GHGe from procured food should have decreased by 40% from a 2002 baseline.

2. It’s not all about budgets – a shared understanding can achieve more

In the case of Malmo, no additional money was added to food budgets to help with the transition to organic. However significant additional money was provided for training, education and raising understanding of how each part of the system could support the wider sustainability mission. This included tailored courses for staff at all levels and in all parts of the food system – cooks, managers, teachers, commissioners etc. Rather than just issuing instructions or calls to action, these courses focused on why the policy was needed and the impact that each part of the system could have in terms of making a difference and influencing others. These accompanied practical courses for delivery staff about how this could be done e.g. at the most practical level, how low carbon, nutritionally balanced meals on a budget could be produced.

3. Choose a goal that can be defined and measured (and if an existing indicator fits – use it!)

A goal for organic food was chosen over ‘sustainable food’ as there was already an agreed definition of what constituted organic, plus a credible existing certification system that i) could guarantee many of the standards and processes that the City was looking for and ii) provided a tangible way to evidence and measure progress. This removed the need to agree, embed and find a way to measure any new definition of the desired outcomes.

4. Local does not always mean better

The push to support local economies can sometimes detract from the bigger debate about what sort of local economies we want to see emerging. In terms of food, this label says nothing about how food has been produced in terms of quality, sustainable farming methods, animal welfare etc. This was another reason that the ‘organic’ goal was chosen by the Malmo team.

5. The role of teaching and catering staff is critical

In Malmo, the role of teaching staff, especially in pre-schools, was vital to encourage interest and curiosity in new foods amongst children. Meal times are also a learning opportunity and so teachers are encouraged to eat with the children and to work with kitchen staff to link the food that is being eaten to classroom activities – a factor also raised in the Learning Lessons from Scotland event.

6. It is vital to involve the supply chain

Transformation involves collaboration and in Malmo the supply chain needed to be supported and strengthened to make the policy work. In Wales, we also need to learn how to better enable producer-purchaser-policy partnerships that are based on reciprocity and help to rebalance risk. This is so that risks and short-term costs of trying to embed the ways of working that we all wish to see are not borne disproportionately by producers.

7. We need to rethink the way that staff in the food sector are valued

In Malmo, the heightened awareness about the role that school catering staff can play in the wider sustainability picture helped shift perceptions of these roles as ‘nothing jobs’ to ones that chefs in the restaurant business wanted to move into, with pull factors including the social contribution they could make as well as the family-friendly hours. In Wales, all parts of the food sector are struggling with staffing and a lack of young entrants. Reframing the opportunities within the food sector could help address this, provided that organisations are also supported to provide jobs that meet Fair Work criteria.

8. It’s a marathon not a sprint

Change takes time. The Malmo team set themselves a 10-year window to achieve the City’s goals. Even though these were not achieved in full by the 2020 deadline, it is still significant progress that others in Sweden and beyond wish to emulate. Success has been attributed to committed leadership, cross-party, cross-sector buy-in, hard work and consistent reiteration of a clear and ambitious target.

Background

The roundtable was held on 28 July 2022. The speakers were Helen Nilsson, Project Manager, Environment Department, City of Malmo and Edward Morgan, Group Corporate Social Responsibility & Training Manager, Castell Howell Foods. Presentation slides are available from admin@cynnalcymru.com.

You can read more about our first roundtable Learning Lessons from Scotland here and our wider work supporting a community of practice on the foundational economy here.

If you would like to join future roundtables or have ideas or comments around this or future themes, please contact Clare Sain-ley-Berry clare@cynnalcymru.com

The Foundational Economy Challenge Fund supported innovative, experimental approaches to community wealth-building and resilient local economies.

Cefnogodd Cronfa Her Economi Sylfaenol dulliau arloesol ac arbrofol o adeiladu cyfoeth cymunedol ac economïau lleol cadarn.

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