LACA survey finds 1.8m children face worsening school meals due to rising food costs

LACA, The School Food People, has conducted a survey of school meal providers operating in 9,874 schools, feeding 1.8m pupils every day. The results paint a stark picture of the challenges facing the school food industry across England and Wales.

According to the survey 91% of respondents are experiencing food shortages, with over 60% saying this has not improved since May 2022 (when the last LACA survey was conducted). Bread, fish, cheese, pasta and potatoes are the items most affected.

Since the survey in May, prices have risen by a further 30% across the board, this is in addition to the 20% price increases that our members reported in May (compared with April 2020). Some caterers have experienced 50% price increases since May 2022.

Key findings:
• 76% of our members have had to change their menu because of food shortages.
• 28% are now using more processed foods to cope with rising costs.
• Almost 35% are now considering switching from British meat to foreign meat. An increase of almost 8% since May 2022.
• 24% of our members may have to reduce cost through the quality of meat purchased.
• Over half (52.2%) expect the quality of school meals to continue getting worse over the coming weeks and months.

The sector is facing a recruitment challenge, 74% of our members are facing a lack of applicants, with kitchen assistants the hardest position to fill. Recruitment has not improved since May for 87% of respondents.

Whilst 94% of our members are still able to meet the school food standards, which are mandatory, this is coming at a great cost. Already our members are telling us that they have had to reduce portion sizes and offer less choice to cope.

Meeting the School Food Standards is unlikely to be sustainable in the long-term without an increase in funding from the Government. The 2.9% increase in Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) funding announced in June is insufficient to deal with the challenge the industry is facing.

LACA are urgently calling on the Government to increase funding per meal for both UIFSM (currently £2.41) and Free School Meals (FSM) (currently £2.47) to address the current cost of living crisis and for this to increase annually with inflation. LACA believe this funding increase is a necessary investment in children’s futures.

Additionally, LACA are calling on the Government to increase the FSM eligibility threshold to include all children whose parents are entitled to Universal Credit. Around 800,000 children are thought to be going hungry because they are not entitled to an FSM, but their parents cannot afford to buy them a school lunch. Too many children are falling through the cracks.

To ensure funding follows the child, LACA are also calling for school meals funding to be ring fenced. The budget is currently issued to schools who do not always pass the full amount to the caterer to provide school meals.

In May, over one-third (38%) of LACA’s members who responded said they did not receive the full funding per meal for FSM. Similarly, 28% of our members who responded said they did not receive the full UIFSM amount.

Brad Pearce, chair of LACA, said, “Despite the best efforts of our members and dedicated frontline staff, the school meals industry is on its knees. The challenges facing our industry are set to get worse over the coming weeks and months.

'Without an increase in school meal funding the most vulnerable children in our society will go without, possibly, their only hot, healthy, and nutritious meal of the day.

“We are also urging the Government to raise the FSM entitlement threshold to all children whose parents are on Universal Credit, to ensure that no child misses out on a school lunch. A hungry child cannot learn, but for too many children this could soon become their reality.”