Children and families minister Will Quince said he recognises schools are “not immune” to the cost-of-living crisis but they must manage their own budgets.
His comments came as the school food caterers’ association Laca warned the quality of school meals will get worse if funding is not ring-fenced by the Government.
Mr Quince said the Government has “really clear school food standards, which are all about healthy, nutritious meals for children while they’re at school”.
“I recognise the global inflationary pressures that the school catering sector and schools are not immune from – that’s why we’ve put an extra £7 billion over the course of the spending review period into schools, an additional £4 billion of that this year,” he told the PA news agency.
He said this is also why the Universal Infant Free School Meal funding rate uplift was extended last month.
The Government raised the rate by 7p per pupil, backdated to April 1, with all pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 getting £2.41 per meal rather than £2.34.
Campaigners said the rise falls far short of inflation.
Mr Quince said he will “continue to work with the sector and watch this very closely because I’ve got to ensure that children up and down the country are getting a healthy nutritious meal at lunchtime”.
Asked about schools being pushed into deficit if they tried not to pass on rising food costs to pupils, he said the additional £7 billion will help schools with this but they need to “manage their own individual budgets”.
He said he will speak to Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, who will in turn speak with the Treasury about how to better support schools and families.
A survey by Laca found that 90% of caterers are experiencing food shortages because of supply chain issues and rising food costs, while nearly eight in 10 – 78% – had had to change or reduce menu options because of supply chain problems.
In the survey of 170 Laca members, carried out between May 19 and 25, 40% said they were worried they would not be able to meet the school food standards in the new academic year, while more than half – 55% – said school food quality will get worse if things do not improve.
Laca said the cost of staples such as minced beef had risen by 11% overnight in recent days.
The association also raised concerns that some children are “falling through the cracks” due to the cost-of-living crisis.
Laca said 57% of its members have seen a fall in uptake of paid meals, despite 54% reporting that free school meals eligibility has increased, which means that many children who need free school meals are missing out as a result of the cost-of-living crisis, it said.
It said the 2.9% increase in Universal Infant Free School Meals is “insufficient” to cope with the challenges faced by the industry and called on the Government to increase funding in line with free school meals, from £2.41 per meal to £2.47 per meal.
Laca said it supports recommendations made by the National Food Strategy to raise the threshold of free school meals eligibility to £20,000 per annum – currently only families with an annual household income of £7,400 or below are eligible, after tax and excluding benefits.
The Government did not adopt this recommendation as part of its Food Strategy, published in June.
Mr Quince said he will “continue to explore” this suggestion.
“It’s certainly something I can continue to explore and look at – what’s really important with free school meals in particular is that we target the support that we have to the most vulnerable and those lowest paid – that’s exactly what we do at the moment.”
Laca is calling for all school meals funding to be ring-fenced. Its survey found that more than one-third of caterers – 34% – have considered using more processed food in meals, and that 38% said they do not receive the full £2.47 from schools per meal.
Laca national chairwoman Jacquie Blake said the findings are an “urgent wake-up call” and warned that without adequate funding, the “most vulnerable children” will miss out on their only hot meal of the day.
She added: “Too many children are already falling through the cracks – their families cannot afford a paid school meal, but they are not eligible for free school meals.”
Some school leaders said they are desperately trying not to allow rising food costs to affect the quality of school meals but that this is stretching their budgets in other areas.
James Bowen, policy director at the NAHT school leaders’ union, said all households are seeing “sharply rising costs” and it “cannot help but impact schools and school meals”.
“Schools will be working with their suppliers to maintain quality and to try and keep costs down for families but that means absorbing higher costs into already tightly squeezed budgets. As always, this means a choice on what to cut spending on elsewhere,” he said.
Paul Gosling, NAHT president and headteacher of Exeter Road Community Primary School in Devon, said his school has held off increasing meal costs to avoid putting pressure on families, but added: “At the moment, the school is absorbing the increased cost but it is not sustainable.”
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