Wednesday 18 September 2013

School meals mustn’t mean trucking turkey nuggets

‘How on earth in austerity Britain can we afford Clegg’s £600m giveaway,’ asked the Daily Mail’s front page headline this morning, as if this was a bizarre luxury, a peculiar whim by the coalition’s junior partners.

There are a number of ways of addressing this, but it does imply just how strange the idea of prevention and investment to prevent is to the English soul.

Never mind that the Finnish approach to care and youth justice frontloads its spending into the early years to cut spending in later years – the reverse of our pattern in the UK. Never mind that Nurse-Family Partnerships, a mentoring programme for at-risk families giving birth in New York City, with 30 years of data, shows that savings carry on into until the baby is in its early twenties. English policy-makers seem not to get it (though, yes I know, Family-Nurse Partnerships (the UK version) have started here too).

So, of course the initiative to provide free school meals for the first three years in primary school is welcome – and important too. It is prevention in action. But there are two provisos that you can’t ignore.

One is that prevention is a far bigger challenge than school meals. It requires a constant effort to push spending further back up the chain of causality. It means blurring departmental boundaries until they practically disappear – it is ridiculous that prevention should be a burned sacrifice on the altar of long-running rivalry between Defra and the Department of Health on food.

And then there is the cost-benefit problem, constantly justifying prevention spending according to what it would save on budgets long gone by – when real prevention ought to mean a whole new kind of budgeting and a whole new understanding of what causes what.

But there is another proviso, and it is this.

Spending like this can potentially have a double or triple effect. It could be used to kick-start the local food economy in every area – a huge injection of economic localisation. It could mean a whole range of new food production and distribution enterprises, keeping the rewards local.

Alternatively it could go to a handful of big providers, on the grounds that trucking their turkey-chicken nuggets 300 miles a day for reheating is somehow more efficient.

One of the most exciting new food enterprises in Dorset started in reaction to Rentokil trucking in free school meals from Nottinghamshire (see picture).

It matters enormously which policy is pursued. One maximises the knock-on effects of prevention. The other is a waste of time and resources in comparison, and won’t result in effective employment for the disadvantaged children who eat the meals when they reach adulthood.

1 comment:

Simon said...

If the policy just means extending current free school meal provision to cover all students of a certain age it is sure to be the second. As I understand it at present free school meals mean that schools get paid somewhere around £1.75 per pupil per day for lunch (this may have gone up by now). Certainly in our school the actual cost the schools need to pay the providers is well over £2 per pupil per day and this is for a pretty standard institutional provider. I think that if we baught them through the county council they would be cheaper as it is run on a bigger contract, but the meals would then not be cooked on sight which they currently are. The school must bear the loss on free school meals pupils and it can afford to do this partly because there are plenty of paying pupils. Take them out of the equation and the economics of keeping the existing contract, let alone switching to something more local and healthier, are likely to rise. This is sure to put more pressure on the school to find a cheaper alternative and that means rentokill.

As with the pupil premium, one feels that the intentions are completely right, but the thing just isn't being done right. That said it is possible that I am mistaken and this effect has been taken into account. I hope to god this is the case!