British schools urged to ban packed lunches

Only 1% meet nutritional standards with many containing crisps, sweets and chocolate

A file photo of  a child enjoying a packed lunch at a primary school in Cambridgeshire. Photograph: PA

A file photo of a child enjoying a packed lunch at a primary school in Cambridgeshire. Photograph: PA


A review of school food has called for schools in England to ban packed lunches and cut the price of cooked dinners to promote healthy eating.

The review wants free meals to be extended to all primary schools, starting in the most deprived areas of England.

The British government has agreed to look into the proposal, and it is understood that education secretary Michael Gove is broadly in favour of the plan.

The review, by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, co-founders of the Leon restaurant chain, also calls for headteachers to ban packed lunches, which are often unhealthy, to encourage pupils to eat school dinners instead.

Only 1 per cent of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards of school

food with many containing unhealthy options such as crisps, sweets and chocolate.

The restaurateurs were charged with investigating the state of school dinners by Mr Gove last year, amid concerns that some children were still being offered unhealthy food.

In their report, published today, they made a number of recommendations to improve lunches - including that pupils be offered free dinners up to age 11. “We believe that there is enough evidence - both from abroad and from English schools - to justify the partial introduction of universal free school meals.”

The move would mean almost three million extra youngsters eating free lunches. Rolling out universal free school meals to primary schools will cost the public purse almost £1 billion, but Mr Dimbleby said encouraging more children to eat in the canteen would make it easier and cheaper to produce nutritious food.

“Canteens are a bit like a restaurant - if you’re half empty, you’re losing money,“ he said. The review acknowledges that the “considerable costs” and the need to involve other parts of government besides the Department for Education in a universal free meals scheme make it a “big ask”.

It adds: “We are pleased that the Secretary of State agrees with us in principle and we would urge schools and councils to consider funding universal free schools themselves.” Mr Dimbleby said evidence shows that giving free meals to all children, not just those from low-income families, can benefit all pupils and “transform the culture in a

school”. The quality of the food is generally better, and the canteen becomes the “hub” of the school, with teachers and pupils eating together. “Pupils don’t have to pay for school textbooks, they don’t have to pay for lessons, why should this be different?” he suggested.

The report also sets out a “checklist” for headteachers, which includes suggestions that they consider banning packed lunches, or make sure that they are not seen as a “better option” by pupils. It also says that youngsters should not be forced to spend time queuing for lunches or to eat off “prison-style trays”.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders warned that banning packed lunches is not the answer. “Encouraging all students to eat a nutritious, hot, school lunch is the right aim, but it is not always feasible,” he said. “Many hardworking families on relatively low incomes give their children packed lunches because they don’t qualify for free school meals and the cost of a

school dinner would be prohibitive.

“Some secondary schools simply don’t have the canteen facilities to cater easily for a thousand-plus students in a short space of time. There needs to be significant additional investment if all schools are to be able to avoid long dinner queues and create the kind of environment that we all would like to eat in.” The report also considered concerns raised by campaigners - including TV chef Jamie Oliver - that academies and free schools have been exempted from strict nutritional guidelines that apply to other state schools. Mr Gove had argued that giving academies and free schools the choice to opt out of standards gave them the freedom to do what is best for their students.

The review found while there was no widespread evidence that these schools were departing from the regulations, “it is wise to have some sort of safety net in place” and called for new food standards for all schools.

In a U-turn on his previous position, Mr Gove has agreed to make these new standards mandatory across state education.

The review found that school dinners have improved significantly since Oliver’s high-profile campaign against unhealthy meals like the Turkey Twizzler. But the report says take-up of school dinners is low at 43 per cent, with many children eating packed lunches instead.