Posted in Free School Meals, Uncategorized

Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM): Improving uptake

In the first Recipe for Change blog, we covered the importance of making the dining room appealing. Whilst many schools have already adopted some of the good practice principles we suggested, uptake still remains very low. Consequently, many pupils don’t benefit from the scheme.

This second blog looks at parental engagement and what your school can do to improve uptake.

Parent attitudes to school food

The problem

Clearly the UIFSM policy won’t work at all if children opt for a packed lunch.

UIFSM uptake

The government target for UIFSM uptake is 87 percent, which is a reasonable target bearing in mind the meals are free. In reality, many schools we have visited are reporting an uptake which is way below this target – in some cases less than 60 percent. This means thousands of children who are entitled to nutritious free school meals are not taking up the benefits. As a result, they often eat a home packed lunch which usually includes food that is high in fat and sugar. Even if the packed lunch includes some fruit and vegetables, research suggests that only one percent of packed lunches  actually meet the school food standards.

Parental choice

Food can be a highly emotive topic and parents reserve the right to decide what their children eat. We spoke to one headteacher in Kent recently, who found that a ban on chocolate in packed lunches caused “parents to go absolutely ballistic”.

Why some parents opt for packed lunches

So, what’s the problem here? As a parent why wouldn’t you want to save over £400 a year and give your children a healthy school lunch? There are a number of concerns.

  • What children want to eat and what they need are quite different. Lots of parents claim that their children don’t or won’t eat green vegetables, oily fish and salad. Parents prefer to provide them with a packed lunch that includes foods they know their children like.
  • If parents opt for schools meals, they have no idea whether or not their child has actually eaten it. As packed lunches come home again, what has been eaten can be monitored.
  • Parents claim that the portion sizes are far too small and their children are extremely hungry when they come home.

The solution

This may sound radical, but the solution to making sure UIFSM is a valuable and worthwhile scheme, is to make it compulsory for at least a term.

Schools we have spoken to that have introduced this policy in Hertfordshire, West Sussex and Kent, all say it has been successful and the average uptake is now around 95 percent.

So, why didn’t parents complain in the same way as they often do when banning chocolate from packed lunches?

Parent attitudes to a compulsory UIFSM policy

Parents we have surveyed in schools where UIFSM is compulsory, or they are considering making it compulsory, said they were relieved: “Now we don’t have to battle with our children anymore about packed lunches versus school meals. It makes it much simpler and easier”.

When we asked parents about children not liking some of the meals and refusing to eat them, they said: “We are sure some children won’t like it at first. They may feel a little hungry if they don’t eat their dinner. However if they aren’t given a choice, they will soon get used to eating [what is on offer]”. 

A recent survey commissioned by the School Food Plan and carried out by Optimum Research, suggests that 95 percent of parents whose children take up the offer of UIFSM are recognising the benefits. Almost a quarter said the main benefit to their child is the greater variety of food they will now eat. The same proportion also said they most value their child eating a proper meal at lunchtime, whilst almost a fifth declared their child has enjoyed trying new foods.

The opportunity to eat together and socialise was identified as the most important aspect by 15 percent of parents, which is why it’s vital to create a restaurant style lunchtime – a concept discussed in our previous blog.

Encouraging children to eat their lunch

When tackling the issue of whether or not children actually do eat their meals, it’s important to make sure midday supervisors give regular feedback to parents. Some schools have even completed food diaries for those who are particularly fussy.

Many so called ‘fussy eaters’ can be rather selective about food because their friends may express dislike for certain foods and they follow suit. Inviting a few children to become ‘food heroes’ can be a good solution to this problem. The food heroes are invited to try all the meals on the menu and then give positive feedback to everyone else. If the food heroes say “it’s yummy”, then this positive peer pressure may sometimes be all it takes for children to give new foods a try.

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