Lessons from Scotland on Free School Meals

Earlier this year, Welsh Government announced the intention to offer free schools meals to every primary school pupil in Wales. This will start, for the youngest learners, in September 2022.

This commitment has been broadly welcomed but its implementation brings to light many challenges currently faced by local authorities, catering staff, suppliers and others involved in school meal provision. These range from inadequate kitchen and dining facilities in schools not designed with universal school meal provision in mind, to the disconnect between what pupils learn about food and nutrition, and the experience of their school meal.  

To better understand how these challenges might be resolved, Cynnal Cymru is convening a series of roundtables to bring together those working in the different policy and operational areas of school meal provision. Our first, in May 22, was held primarily to learn from the experience of implementing universal free school meals (uFSM) in primary schools in Scotland, where the commitment is for all primary school children to have free school meals by August 2022. 

The speakers were Prof. Mary Brennan, University of Edinburgh Business School and Chair of the Scottish Food Coalition and Jayne Jones, Commercial Manager at Argyll & Bute Council and Chair of Assist FM –a non-profit association working to promote the facilities management services of all member local authorities in Scotland. The roundtable was chaired by Prof. Kevin Morgan from Cardiff University.  

Below is a summary of some key points shared by the presenters and attendees. The full meeting notes are also available. 

uFSM must be seen as a vehicle for multiple policy objectives 

The role that school food has to play in enhancing public health and well-being must be looked at in a context extending far beyond just provision of nutrition and calories. School food matters to many cross-cutting themes and is at the heart of a ‘good food nation’. 

Dining together in schools helps children develop important, but sometimes overlooked, eating and social skills, where new tastes and food combinations can be introduced in a safe environment and norms around use of cutlery and avoiding waste can be set. Social eating also provides an opportunity for relaxation that aids afternoon learning.  Alongside the immediate benefits, these things will also help shape future food and lifestyle choices. 

In terms of the wider school community, the experience in Scotland suggests that universal provision benefits all families including those with time or knowledge constraints, as well as financial ones. 

Universal provision can also provide local economic multipliers particularly if there is investment in building links with local businesses.  It can be a driver for high quality farming and fishing, enhancing animal welfare and supporting and creating new routes to market for food businesses. It can also be an opportunity to trial methods of procurement and production compliant with Net Zero and nature recovery ambitions.  

Mary Brennan argues that what is needed is an annual forensic analysis to understand how uFSM provision is contributing to other policy areas in Scotland but this has not so far happened. 

It is essential to develop systems thinking capacity to understand how school food can deliver across different policy areas 

One of the biggest challenges in Scotland has been getting Ministers and officials to understand the operational realities and challenges that school catering staff face. The school canteen is a relentless and demanding operational environment and staff are usually not employed outside term-time or food preparation/supervision/clean-up times. There is therefore no time or space for strategic thinking to review, reflect or plan. The same is often true with local authorities with very little resource, which can lead to paralysis and a default to doing things the way they have always been done rather than trying to maximise or diversify policy outcomes. 

In Scotland, Assist FM argued for investment in management as well as frontline staff to aid the transition to uFSM in recognition of the need for this thinking and planning time and to ensure they weren’t spreading already stretched management staff too thinly. 

It is not just the food that should be valued  

The key role of dining staff in school has also been recognised in Scottish research. The extent of many of the benefits of social eating in schools – particularly around the amount of time spent eating (and therefore producing less waste) – was found to correlate directly with the amount of dining supervision available, yet the hours and numbers of dining supervisors are often vulnerable to cost-cutting.  

This links to another obstacle in expanding uFSM provision – the recruitment and retention of supervision and catering staff. Scottish research suggests that recognising more overtly the insights and contributions from these staff can expedite successful uFSM implementation, through staff development and providing space for learning and professionalisation of school catering. Attendees agreed that the whole food sector – from farming to catering – needs to be understood and promoted as a career path. 

Conclusions and next steps 

Implementing uFSM may involve complex trade-offs but there is also the potential for multiple co-benefits from a singular investment. In Wales this is a key opportunity to look at food through the lens of the Well-Being of Future Generations Act, incorporating net zero, nature recovery, equality, foundational economy and other aims. 

The clearest outcome from this session was that the ‘cost’ of school food needs to be reframed as an investment in better health and environmental outcomes and an investment in our learners (as opposed to just investing in the learning itself). We hear of redefining ‘value’ in public procurement to include the social and environmental value created from spending public money. With the publication of the Social Partnerships and Public Procurement Bill this shift should now be at the forefront of government’s mind. The provision of uFSM is an opportunity to put this into practise. 

Future sessions will consider how this investment can be made and how other operational challenges raised but not included in this piece can be resolved. These include how to increase flexibility within menu design to be able to cope rising food prices, uncertainty of supply and other ‘what if..’ scenarios; the challenges faced by schools with insufficient or no catering facilities; and how this policy aim can also support a more diverse and progressive food system in Wales, including links with the Community Food Strategy. 

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. 

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