What is the school food leaky bucket & how do we fix it? 

Myles Bremner, former Director of the School Food plan, and CEO of Bremner & Co (formerly Bremner Consulting) talks about the school food system, and how we must plug the holes in the school food leaky bucket.  

Anyone who has spent more than 15 minutes in a room with me will have heard me talk about the school food leaky bucket. It’s my way of communicating the complexities of the school food system and showing that you can’t just ask for one thing.  In fact, in the years I’ve been involved in school food, I’m getting frustrated that the leaks are getting bigger!  Here are just some that have been on my mind this week. 

There are ever rising numbers of children living in poverty who are not entitled to free school meals.
There are children who are entitled to free school meals but not registered due to awkward and difficult administrative systems.  
School food funding is complicated by needless bureaucracy – and increases in food costs, wage costs and utility costs are getting close to outstripping funding rates.
Our School Food Standards are out of date – they don’t reflect current dietary advice and ignore sustainability issues.
There is a lack of transparent accountability and quality assurance in the school food on offer from both schools and caterers.
We have universal free school lunches for some, but not for all. We have universal free school breakfasts for some, but not for all. This causes inequity and unfairness in access.  

The pandemic exposed and exacerbated the flaws in the school food system. School food hits the headlines frequently – it’s rarely out of the spotlight.  These past few weeks we’ve seen news coverage challenging vegan school food, reports of £70 million rollout of the Welsh free school meals offer, and calls for the Scottish first minister to not renege on free school meal commitments.

So, how can we fix the leaky school food bucket? Progress to reforming the school food system can be hampered when we only see single issues (or even just a list of issues).  We must collectively cheerlead a vision where children eat well and learn to love food. And collectively champion the benefits of doing so – enabling our children to learn well, live well and prosper. 

I co-ordinate the work of the School Food Review Group, a network of brilliant minds and organisations looking at the policy and practice of school meals – over 36 organisations so far. Bremner & Co also work with the pioneering boroughs of Southwark and Tower Hamlets – multi partnership, holistic approaches which are being adopted to improve the school food culture for all children by local authorities.  There are different viewpoints, priorities and opinions. But, we are all working together to build a better school food system- where all players feel listened to, supported and empowered. A great school food system ensures the asks for access, quality, and fair funding come together and that we use our collective voice to lead the change.

So, to end, I want to put forward my headline thoughts on fixing that leaky bucket, and I’d love to hear what yours are. 

  1. Continuing to build our advocacy platforms – we are stronger when we have a collective voice, and we don’t dilute our asks to government and those in power.  
  2. Think of the climate not just the weather in terms of school food– things may be frustrating now as we persistently fight for free school meals but there is change on the horizon. How do we work to ensure that those next in power know what we are asking for?
  3. Remember that a crowd of angry voices shouting about different things could damage our long-term goals. Back to point one, working in partnership and agreeing our advocacy platforms is one of our greatest tools in the box. The Superpowers of Free school meals evidence pack and the work of the School Food Review are great examples of strength in collaboration. 
  4. Build our evidence case – the more evidence the better to build the case for the power of free school meals. The recent report by Impact on Urban Health on the cost benefit analysis of free school meals shows how powerful data can be. Every £1 invested in universal free school meals generated £1.71 in core benefits.

Bremner & Co is the new name for Bremner Consulting. It’s just a name change, to reflect our growing team. Our passion for child nutrition and health stays the same.

3 thoughts on “What is the school food leaky bucket & how do we fix it? ”

  1. Lester Newman

    Good article. We must make sure we look at taking ‘a whole school approach’ to school food. Just because a meal is free doesn’t meN it’ll be good – or that it’s eaten

  2. Great diagram! It’s shocking that school food is in such a poor state but encouraging there seems to be a growing movement to change that.

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