Farm leaders are hoping the government’s drive to improve school meals will boost demand for British food and give children a better appreciation of how food is produced.
Following the government’s announcement last week of its aim to ban junk food in schools, an advisory body, the School Meals Review Panel, has added that schools should serve food from local farmers and suppliers where possible.
It said that to drive up nutritional standards, schools should aspire to give children a hot meal, cooked on-site from fresh and seasonal ingredients.
“While we accept that this level of provision is not possible in all schools at present, we recommend that they work towards this,” it said.
The panel added that to improve children’s knowledge about growing and cooking healthy food, links between local producers and schools should be strengthened through farm visits.
Terry Jones, outgoing head of the NFU’s food chain unit, said ultimately the initiative could lead to British producers getting a bigger slice of the school meal market.
“There could be winners and losers in agriculture.
The fresh produce industry will undoubtedly benefit… and if there is a move away from mechanically recovered meat to fresh cuts, so could the UK livestock industry,” he said.
“The losers are potentially with potato and sugar, although a lot of that kind of stuff is currently imported, so it is difficult to quantify whether they would lose.”
But Mr Jones sounded a note of caution, pointing out that to get local produce into schools there will need to be improvements in school kitchens and changes to the distribution network.
“If we are to get local food into local schools then we are talking about a wholesale upheaval of the existing arrangements.
There are some serious barriers to be overcome.”
Soil Association policy director Peter Melchett, who was the only food producer to sit on the School Meals Review Panel, said he wanted to see children eating high-quality school dinners every day.
“We especially welcome the panel’s emphasis on the social, cultural and environmental aspects of school meals.
“We have been consistently told by teachers and school catering staff that healthy school meals have led to calmer, better-behaved pupils who concentrate better in class.”