06 Sep 2022 Guest Blog: Covid-19 and the cost of living crisis: the impact on school food
In our latest guest blog, we hear from Dr. Kelly Rose of Durham County Council to explore how Covid-19 and the current cost of living crisis may impact school food.
“I don’t think there has been any changes in terms of nutrition and availability, it was poor before Covid and continues to be poor after. Sadly, what is served in the school canteen does not mirror the messages delivered in food lessons…” (Staff) Quote from paper
Covid-19 pandemic provided a ‘big’ wakeup call across the world as to how much of a safety net school food actually is. Historically, school lunch has been provided for the purpose of avoiding childhood malnutrition and hunger, an opportunity to tackle inequalities, by giving the poorest of children nourishment to enable them to grow, develop and hopefully thrive into adulthood. But the school dining experience is also recognised as a means to social competence essential in enabling young people to grow up and contribute to society in positive ways.
Since, I wrote the article in 2019 ‘Why are school lunches still so unhealthy’, we have collectively experienced a global pandemic, and have been affected in a myriad of ways. The pandemic has exacerbated already high levels of food insecurity and childhood hunger, due to family’s loss of income as a direct impact of Covid-19. Sadly, the current cost of living crisis has worsened the situation, with reports of pupils withdrawing from school meals and school caterers having to swap to cheaper, poor-quality ingredients and smaller portions. Inequities in our food systems are causes of malnutrition in all its forms, including undernutrition and obesity. Undernourishment results in a weakened immune function, impacts children’s ability to learn, and those with obesity and diseases such as type 2 diabetes are more likely to suffer worsened outcomes from Covid-19. Both the pandemic and cost of living crisis increase the challenge of obesity prevention and children and young people from economically disadvantaged areas are the most vulnerable.
In March 2020, the strict lockdown measures and school closures to contain Coronavirus meant many young children entitled to free school meals (FSM) , suddenly lost their main meal of the day. Within a few months it became clear that large gaps in the national food system were contributing to hunger and less healthy diets for those with low or no income.
Cost of living crisis: a new challenge for schools
As well as household family budgets, the current cost of living crisis is predicted to negatively impact school food provision. For many children from low-income families, school lunch may be their only nutritious and hot meal of the day, so it is essential the school food standards are upheld. LACA, which represents more than 3,000 school food providers across the UK, warned that some firms will struggle to meet the school food standards this September with current levels of Government funding amidst the rising cost of food. Finding from LACA’s cost of living and supply chain survey found that 90% of school food providers were experiencing food shortages from their supply chain, with chicken, fish, bread and oil most affected by shortages, and even cheaper staples such as potatoes and pasta are increasingly expensive. A school catering manager said price rises are already reshaping the menu – a pack of 60 fish cakes has doubled from £5.95 to £11.95. Schools are keeping costs down by swapping beef mince to cheaper, plant-based sources of protein such as pulses, swapping white fish for pollack, strawberries to apples, and taking some expensive items, such as lamb, off the menu altogether.
Schools have reported parents are swapping school dinners to packed lunches to cut costs, a worry given packed lunches are usually less healthy than school dinners . A recent survey found that ultra-processed foods, such as fizzy drinks, processed meats, crisps and confectionary, accounted for 82% of calories in packed lunches. Part one of the National Food Strategy called to extend the FSM scheme for all children up to the age of 16, and increase the FSM threshold to £20,000 before benefits. This would ensure that over 80% of children in food-insecure households would be eligible for FSM, but the Government’s Food Strategy did not adopt this recommendation. The 7 pence uplift in funding for universal free school meals (UFSM) from £2.34 to £2.41 is below rising inflation levels, and only applies to children in Reception and the first two years of primary school.
Schools as part of the Welfare State: Tackling food insecurity
Widespread media coverage during Covid-19 brought the stark realities of food insecurity to the public, revealing the extent of child hunger in Britain and the inability for families to access healthy foods on a low income. Children’s food campaigners and charities were instrumental in demonstrating the necessity of the national food strategy and driving public awareness. Parents shared their experiences of their kids constant snacking and became more aware of the need for low-cost healthy foods, unhealthy advertising bans and a need for better nutrition education in schools.
Schools became the hub of their communities in the battle to feed all children and young people during lockdown – one in five schools set up a food bank during the Covid crisis. Many of these food hubs have continued as families struggle post-Covid and with the rising cost of living. There has been a huge pressure on schools, and school leaders have definitely stepped up to the challenge of supporting their pupil’s education and wellbeing. However, unfortunately in many cases making sure healthy food was served was less of a priority, rather ‘food in their bellies’ as quickly as possible seemed to be the overarching consensus in the research findings . The limited menus and variety of foods as a direct result of insufficient space or cooking areas and a need to feed young people ‘something’ in limited time frames compromised the nutrient content of many school food offerings, with pizza, paninis and bacon rolls common choices.
Views of UK parents, young people and school staff on their school food from reopening from September 2021 demonstrate a perceived negative impact of Covid-19 on the overall school food experience and healthiness . Frustrations with shortened lunch times, poor nutritional quality and reduced choice and grab and go items were expressed in the hundreds of comment submissions for the national survey. One parent highlighted a significant issue in the lack of education in what makes a healthy balanced meal, as she described the kind intentions of a headteacher.
‘My son’s bubble was sent home… to self-isolate…The head teacher dropped a bag a food off which was kind but misguided. The bag contained apples and brown pitta, all good. But it also contained a 6 pack of crisps and a 5 pack of chocolate bars. I don’t buy these items myself. Hardly nutritious for other families who may struggle to buy healthy food. In addition, the main food source was a box of soup sachets containing just under 100kcals, again not sufficient as a meal. Being poor should not equal eating poor food… And school cooks also need more training’ (parent)
Many parents stated their teenagers were skipping lunch or taking a packed lunch into school. Both pose significant concerns for malnutrition for teens, as generally home brought packed lunches have been shown to be less healthy than school lunches , and those skipping lunch are more likely to reach for high energy foods that are low in essential nutrients after school time. In the current rising cost of living, schools have reported parents are swapping school dinners to packed lunches to cut costs, and worryingly, a recent survey found that ultra-processed foods, such as fizzy drinks, processed meats, crisps and confectionary, accounted for 82% of calories in packed lunches. Research found that parents are likely to pack foods they know their child will eat to avoid waste, avoiding perishable foods such fruits and vegetables perceived expensive by parents .
The nutritional quality and choice of school food is likely to diminish further with the rising cost of food; some schools are being forced to replace hot meals with sandwiches or reduce their offer; pupils faced a similar experience during the pandemic.
‘So the school has cut all hot meals. And it’s only a sandwich as I receive free school meals I don’t get as much anymore I can only get a sandwich.’ (student)
Over 60% of school caterers said they may have to consider reducing the standards they meet over the coming months, as the rising costs of certain foods is making it difficult to plan future menus compliant with the school food standards. Alternatively, schools will have to increase the price of paid-for meals, which will worsen the financial strain on families ineligible for free school meals, which Barbara Crowther of the Child’s Food Campaign stated as ‘a scandalously low threshold’.
Whole School Approach
‘Schools that prioritise health are more likely to have healthy food choices and adopt a whole school approach’ .
It is well established that schools are the heart of the community and best placed to educate and influence large population healthy lifestyle behaviour change, as part of a whole systems-based approach. The most promising evidence combines interventions which focus on physical activity and nutrition together incorporated into the school day via policy.
Findings from my systematic review demonstrated school food intervention and policy can be effective in improving healthy eating behaviours in young people. Given the rising cost of living, healthy school food policy should remain a priority, with local authorities supporting schools to implement and incorporate monitoring systems and share good practice. Behaviour change approaches such as ‘nudges’ (for example, product placement, stickers, colourful menus, and adapting cooking methods) can be useful. Additionally, designing of school health programmes with teenagers means they are much more likely to engage. We know that teenagers value convenience and cost, with free or low-cost interventions found to encourage young people to try unfamiliar foods, which is important in improving nutrition habits.
‘Young people are aware of the value of the healthy options and their importance to health, believing there should be a balance both healthful and unhealthful options on offer’
In a bid to keep nutritious choices despite the Covid-19 guidelines, some schools have innovatively changed their food choices and experience to ensure nutrition remains key [1,6]. As much as is possible given the current cost of living crisis, the following recommendations from the research could support schools to improve the school food experience for their pupils, whilst attempting to keep costs low.
- Make the heathy choice the easy choice – Wholewheat options as a default, fruit and vegetable pots. Introduce a choice of toppings or fillings to appeal to young people, which can be served quickly and are easy to eat. For example, pasta, wraps, pitta pocket stations offering a variety of toppings or fillings
- Take advantage of seasonal produce – fruits and vegetables are cheapest when they are in season. Try and buy from local suppliers or, if possible, grow produce on school premises, which can support lessons in sustainability.
- Where there is challenge in serving hot meals to all year groups, alternate weeks of hot sit-down meals and cold lunches, to ensure fairness in the range of foods served to all year groups
- Keeping all students on school premises over lunch and break (although this is normal practice in many schools, the survey identifies some schools allow students off premises at lunch time)
- Be smart and inclusive with food choices which meet specific dietary requirements and incorporate gluten free, vegetarian/vegan. This may include overnight oat pots with a choice of toppings and rice dishes – all vegetarian/vegan options should include a protein source
- Nutritionists and Dietitians should be consulted to provide advice on appropriate nutrition within restrictions including budget and limited preparatory equipment, to best support young people’s nutritional needs
Can we cultivate a system-based approach to school food in a post-Covid world and the current cost of living crisis?
It is clear that COVID-19 has presented a huge challenge to the delivery of healthy school food to young people, and now, the current cost of living crisis poses a threat to school food quantity and quality. Bold national and local actions are needed to support healthy relationships to food and dietary quality from early years, and to make healthy lifestyle choices easier. The government must ensure that even more children and young people are not pushed into food poverty as a result of the current cost of living crisis by extending eligibility for FSM provision to all primary school aged children. Additionally, the Government should increase the value of a school meal to match the rising cost of food, so catering staff are not forced to reduce portions and take certain foods off the menu. The pandemic has shone a light on the importance of immunity and overall good health in fighting disease and infection, therefore nutrition should be prioritised at every stage of life. The goal of a better future for our young people is a shared mission and we need everyone to be part of the solution.
 Rose, K., O’malley, C., Brown, L., Ells, L. J., & Lake, A. A. (2021). ‘Pizza every day–why?’: A survey to evaluate the impact of COVID‐19 guidelines on secondary school food provision in the UK. Nutrition Bulletin, 46(2), 160-171.
 School’s Week (2022) Schools now ‘part of the welfare state as cost of living crisis deepens [online] Available at: https://schoolsweek.co.uk/schools-now-part-of-the-welfare-state-as-cost-of-living-crisis-deepens/
 McIntyre, R. L., Adamson, A. J., Nelson, M., Woodside, J., Beattie, S., & Spence, S. (2022). Changes and differences in school food standards (2010–2021) and free school meal provision during COVID‐19 across the UK: Potential implications for children’s diets. Nutrition Bulletin.
 O’Rourke, B., Shwed, A., Bruner, B., & Ferguson, K. (2020). What’s for lunch? Investigating the experiences, perceptions, and habits of parents and school lunches: a scoping review. Journal of School Health, 90(10), 812-819.
 Rose, K., O’Malley, C., Eskandari, F., Lake, A. A., Brown, L., & Ells, L. J. (2021). The impact of, and views on, school food intervention and policy in young people aged 11–18 years in Europe: a mixed methods systematic review. Obesity Reviews, 22(5), e13186.
 Fuse (2021) research Briefings: The role of school food policy in shaping young people’s diets [online] Available at: http://www.fuse.ac.uk/research/briefs/The%20role%20of%20school%20food%20policy%20in%20shaping%20the%20diets%20of%20young%20people.pdf
About the author
Dr. Kelly Rose is a Registered Nutritionist (AfN) and Public Health Advanced Practitioner Healthy Weight, Policy and Place for Durham County Council. Formerly teacher of Food and nutrition and Head of Health Education in an Academy in Middlesbrough (pupils aged 11-18 years). Kelly’s PhD explored factors which influence the school food environment and a young person’s food choice; expertise on the evidence and delivery of whole school approaches to nutrition and healthy school food provision.