Press release

Plan to increase take-up of school dinners launched

A plan of action designed to improve the quality and take-up of school food and put the kitchen at the heart of school life is published.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Child eating breakfast cereal

The ‘School food plan’, written by Leon restaurant founders Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, includes a range of actions to drive up standards and divert some of the £1 billion parents currently spend on packed lunches back into the system.

A year ago, Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove asked Henry and John to work with schools, councils, caterers, parents and government to set out how to increase the number of children eating good food in schools.

The actions set out today in the plan include: £16.1 million of new money to boost take up in schools and ensure thousands of children get healthy breakfast; a checklist for headteachers to help improve the ‘food culture’ in their schools, and the launch of 2 flagship London boroughs to help prove that better school food can have a significant impact on children’s health and attainment.

Henry Dimbleby said:

While we have been hugely impressed by the energy and enthusiasm we have witnessed among school cooks, teachers and others working to make school food great, our findings are clear - not enough children are eating well and not enough money is going into the school food system to ensure that it can provide great food and pay its way.

That’s why we have got to make a change. We need to ensure that children have the fuel they need in order to be happy and healthy and perform well at school. The best schools worry about what’s going on in children’s bodies as well as their minds.

This is a series of actions, each of which is the responsibility of a named person or organisation, to transform what children eat at school and how they learn about food.

John Vincent said:

Increasing take-up is not something that can be done from the top-down. It requires a cultural change within each school.

It means cooking food that is both appetising and nutritious, making the dining hall a welcoming place, keeping queues down, getting the price right, allowing children to eat with their friends; getting them interested in cooking and growing.

We know from our experience that this change is led by headtachers and we hope they help to take this plan forward to make a real and lasting change.

Welcoming the plan, Michael Gove said:

The whole virtue of the ‘School food plan’ is that it’s there to help - it emphasises the vital importance of making sure food is high quality and tasty and creating a culture in your school where everyone appreciates the importance of food.

What I’d like to see is more children eating school lunches and fewer having packed lunches, and more children feeling healthier and more energetic throughout the day.

I would like to thank John and Henry for the hard work that went into this this plan and believe we now have a set of actions that can make a real difference in schools right across the country.

Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said:

This is an ambitious plan that sets out a blueprint from which we can get kids to eat more healthily and to learn more about food.

All the evidence suggests that if kids have a healthy school meal they’ll do better in the classroom and that’s something which is in everyone’s long-term interest.

Through our forthcoming pilot we want London boroughs to help show the rest of the country that the link between great food and academic achievement is inextricable.

Actions in the plan include:

  • A £16.1 million injection of cash from the Department for Education over the next 2 years. This includes £11.8 million that organisations such as the Children’s Food Trust and the Food For Life Partnership can bid for to help turn around schools that are struggling with their lunch service, £3.15 million to ensure healthy breakfasts are available for thousands of children who arrive at school hungry.
  • A practical checklist for headteachers, listing the most important things they or their team can do to that can make a big difference to take-up and food culture in schools. The checklist is based on the examples of what is working well that the reviewers have seen during their trips to over 60 schools in the country. They are designed to be pinned up in the head’s office and the kitchen. Suggested actions include:
    • Lowering the price of school meals - consider subsidising school meals for your reception and year 7 classes for the first term, or offer discounts for parents of multiple children or those whose children eat a school lunch every day.
    • Teachers should be encouraged to eat with the children in the dining hall.
    • Have a stay-on-site rule for break and lunch time.
    • Have a cashless payment system to shorten queuing times and prevent free school meal children from being stigmatised.
    • Offer after school cooking lessons for parents with their children.
    • Make sure packed lunches are not more exciting than school lunches. Ban sugary drinks, crisps and confectionery, or offer prizes and other incentives for bringing in a healthy lunch. Or ban packed lunches altogether.
    • Watch what gets served at mid-morning break. Many children eat their main meal at this time which too often means filling up on pizza, paninis or cake.
  • The launch of 2 flagship London boroughs to help prove that better school food can have a significant impact on children’s health and attainment. Every school in each area will receive co-ordinated support from expert organisations such as the Children’s Food Trust to improve the quality and take up of school meals and spread great food culture through the wider community. The Department for Education and the Mayor’s Office will jointly fund the boroughs.
  • The Department for Education will test and introduce a set of revised food based standards (built on a nutritional framework), with the intention of applying them to maintained schools and all new academies and free schools by September 2014.
  • Ofsted will amend its guidance to inspectors to consider behaviour and culture in the dining hall and the way a school promotes healthy lifestyles.
  • Co-founder of Innocent smoothies Richard Reed and branding expert Wally Olins will help devise a strategy to improve the image of school food, and Jamie Oliver has agreed to help through his media work.
  • Ensuring cooking is in the curriculum for all children up to the age of 14. The new curriculum will emphasise the importance of cooking nutritious, savoury dishes, understanding where food comes from, and taking pleasure in the creative arts of the kitchen.
  • The government will investigate the case for extending free school meals entitlement.

Other actions in the plan include:

  • including food and nutrition in headteacher training
  • action to ensure small schools are funded fairly
  • a 5 measure test to judge whether the ‘School food plan’ is working
  • a new ‘what works well’ website to share best practice

In addition, in September Change4Life - the government’s biggest existing public awareness campaign - will launch a new ‘Back to School’ pledge. This will consist of 5 healthy behaviours, one of which will be a promise by parents to give their child a school dinner.

Over the course of the last year Henry and John have:

  • held more than 100 meetings with experts, representative groups and organisations working with schools to improve their food culture
  • organised 7 regional events around England, attended by nearly 500 people and representatives from over 150 schools
  • visited more than 60 schools to eat their food, attend lessons and discuss issues with children, parents, cooks, teachers, business managers, teachers and heads
  • held 20 focus groups with children
  • convened an expert panel to develop the plan
  • commissioned primary research including a representative survey of 400 headteachers’ views on school food

Key facts and figures:

  • The obesity rate in the UK has risen from 6% of the population in 1980 to 27% today, and almost 20% of children are already obese by the time they leave primary school.
  • Across the country, take-up of school food remains stubbornly low. The majority of children - 57% - either bring in a packed lunch or buy something outside school (almost always junk food).
  • Many parents mistakenly imagine that a packed lunch is the healthiest option. In fact, it is far easier to get the necessary nutrients into a cooked meal.
  • Only 1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards that currently apply to school food and two-thirds contain sweets, sugary drinks and savoury snacks such as crisps.
  • Parents currently spend almost £1 billion a year on packed lunches; persuading just a fraction of them to switch to school food would lead to healthier children who are able to concentrate better and work harder.

Notes to editors

  1. The ‘School food plan’ is linked to from the department’s website and is available to download on

  2. Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent are available for interviews on Friday 12 July. To bid for the reviewers, for more information or for photographs of the reviewers, call the Department for Education newsdesk on 020 7783 8300.

  3. A new national organisation, Public Health England (PHE), has also been set up to improve the public’s health and wellbeing. From September Change4Life - PHE’s flagship social marketing campaign, which encourages everyone in England to ‘eat well, move more, live longer’ - will carry messages about the benefits of school dinners in its national campaign.

Biographies of Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent:

Henry and John co-founded the Leon restaurant chain in 2004. Prior to founding Leon, they both have experience of leading large scale change in commercial organisations at the management consultancy Bain & Company and, for John, from the work he did turning around the spirits company, Whyte & Mackay. Prior to Bain, John worked at Procter & Gamble. Henry worked as a chef and as a journalist. Henry is a founder and director of the not-for-profit Sustainable Restaurant Association.

Henry and John will use their experience to investigate all of the possible ways in which improvements could be made to school food, through leadership, communication, rewards, inspiration, training, structures and supply chain, regulation, responsibilities within schools, reporting, and the role of parents and people from the world of food.

The expert panel:

  • Professor Ashley Adamson - Public Health Nutrition (Newcastle University)
  • Myles Bremner - chief executive, Garden Organic
  • Anne Bull - national chair, LACA
  • Linda Cregan - chief executive, Children’s Food Trust
  • Richard Dunne - headteacher, Ashley CE Primary School
  • Libby Grundy - chief executive, Food for Life Partnership
  • Judy Hargadon - former chief executive, Children’s Food Trust
  • Christine Lewis - national officer for education, UNISON
  • Brian Lightman - general secretary, Association of School and College Leaders
  • Carmel McConnell - chief executive, Magic Breakfast
  • Professor Theresa Marteau - director, Behaviour and Health Unit, Cambridge University
  • Tracy Mills - school cook, Shotton Hall Academy
  • Dr Michael Nelson - Public Health Nutrition Research
  • Jeanette Orrey - ex-school cook, co-founder Food for Life Partnership
  • Sarah Owen - school cook, Stoke Newington School
  • Lesley Powell -Principal, Shotton Hall Academy
  • Mandy Snaith - Leeds City Council
  • Sara Jayne Stanes - chief executive, Royal Academy of Culinary Arts, Chefs Adopt a School
  • Stephanie Wood - School Food Matters

DfE enquiries

Central newsdesk - for journalists 020 7783 8300

General enquiries - for members of the public 0370 000 2288

Published 12 July 2013