School Food Plan: implications for food allergic children

Have you heard about “universal free school meals” and the School Food Plan? It will affect anyone with a child in reception, year 1 or year 2 from this September (and potentially ALL primary school children in years to come).

September 2014: free school meals

Last September, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced that, from September 2014, the following pupils and students will be eligible for a free school meal:

  • ALL infant school pupils in state funded schools in England (so children in reception, year 1 and year 2).
  • Disadvantaged students at sixth form colleges and further education colleges.

This announcement came on the back of the publication of the the School Food Plan in July 2013, in which Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent recommended that the government should embark on a phased roll out of free school meals for all children in all primary schools.

The government’s stated aim is to provide infant school children with a “hot, nutritious meal at lunch time”, in order to “improve academic attainment and save families money”. Nick Clegg said:

“My ambition is that every primary school pupil should be able to sit down to a hot, healthy lunch with their class mates every day.”

So far, so laudable. And a policy that states that all infant school children will receive a free school lunch, must include food allergic children too, right?

On reading about the plan, the first questions that spring to my mind were:

  • If my son has a school lunch, will this be nut free?
  • Even if the ingredients are nut free, will the school cook / catering company understand that he cannot have products which say “may contain nuts”?
  • Will the school kitchen staff understand about cross contamination?
  • If the school can make him a nut free meal, will there be any variety? (I’ve heard several stories of allergic children currently on school dinners having the option of jacket potato… or jacket potato. Every single day).
  • If the school lunches won’t be nut safe, might he be the only child eating a packed lunch whilst everyone has school dinners?

Can schools BAN packed lunches?

A further important point is whether schools have the power to ban packed lunches. The School Food Plan infers in several places that headteachers will indeed have this power. For example, the summary of the plan says:

“We have put together a ‘checklist for head teachers’… This includes everything from chucking out prisonstyle trays and getting teachers to eat in the dining hall, to banning packed lunches (it can be done!).”

The checklist itself suggests that headteachers:

“Make sure packed lunches are not a ‘better’ option. Ban sugary drinks, crisps and confectionery, or offer prizes and other incentives for bringing in a healthy lunch. Some schools ban packed lunches outright. If you want to do this, try starting with your newest intake (pupils in reception or year 7). The ban will then apply to all the years that follow them, until it extends to the whole school.”

The Q&A for headteachers is even more explicit, stating at question 11:

“As a Head Teacher, you have the power to decide whether you want to allow pupils to bring in a packed lunch instead of taking up their free school meal. We have seen schools where the Head Teacher has successfully banned packed lunches across the whole school. This clearly takes a clear commitment and excellent communication with pupils and parents.”

So, from this, packed lunches can be banned (and the clear inference is that they should be). The only reference I could see to the contrary was at question 6 of the Q&A, which says:

“be aware that UFSM does not necessarily lead to 100% take up of meals. Because of food allergies, absences, religious beliefs and those who will insist on carrying on with packed lunches, take up usually hovers between 85% and 90%.”

The Anaphylaxis Campaign also noted (in October 2013) that:

“As far as possible we would like to see the severely allergic child to have school meals with their peers … Parents of children with very severe and complex allergies should note that the plan does still allow packed lunches from home.”

So, whilst the position isn’t 100% clear, it seems that a school can impose a packed lunch ban, but make a concession for those with food allergies or certain religious beliefs.

What does the School Food Plan say about food allergies?

Very little, so far. The key provision relating to allergies is set out in the Q&A for Headteachers as follows (click to enlarge):

School Food Plan headteacher FAQs 19 Feb 2014The good news is that more  detailed guidance is expected soon…

How does the School Food Plan tie in with the Children and Families Bill?

The Children and Families Bill: food allergies

The Children and Families Bill is currently passing through Parliament and is expected to be enacted as the “Children and Families Act 2014” soon. The Bill covers a wide range of areas, such as family law, childcare providers and parental leave.

In October 2013, the Government announced that the Bill would be amended to include a duty on schools to support pupils with long-term health needs, namely:

“The appropriate authority for a school … must make arrangements for supporting pupils at the school with medical conditions”

In doing so, the authority must “have regard to guidance issued by the Secretary of State”. The government is consulting on this statutory guidance at the moment (the consultation will end on 14 March 2014).

The duty (and related guidance) aim to ensure that children with long term health needs have full access to education. The current draft guidance refers to food at paragraph 39, providing that:

“it is not generally acceptable practice to: … send children with medical conditions home frequently or prevent them from staying for normal school activities including lunch”

For more details, see the Anaphylaxis Campaign’s report of the Bill’s progress through Parliament.

The Children and Families Bill: free school meals

In addition to the duty to support pupils with long-term health needs, on 23 January 2014, the Government announced its:

“intention to amend the Children and Families Bill, which is currently before Parliament, to place a legal duty on primary schools to offer free meals to all pupils in reception, year 1 and year 2 from this September. The legislation will also include a power to extend the policy to additional year groups in future.”

In summary…

  • Primary schools will be under a legal duty to provide free school meals (to children in reception, year 1 and year 2) from September 2014.
  • It seems that, although headteachers have the power to ban packed lunches, food allergic children may be exempted from this ban.
  • The detailed guidance for schools regarding how to keep food allergic children safe is still awaited.

I was chatting recently to the head of nutrition at a catering company which supplies many schools. Her view that there shouldn’t be a problem with nuts, in that most schools already veto both foods with nuts as an ingredient or those labelled “may contain nuts” or equivalent wording. Whilst that was reassuring for me to hear, the situation may not be so straightforward for those with multiple allergies (and I imagine if you are dealing with allergies outside of the “top 14”, it will be trickier still).

If a school can’t provide a safe school meal for an allergic child, and a parent has to instead provide a packed lunch, this raises questions of both:

  • “Exclusion”: the child with the long term health condition being unable to join in school lunches with their peers.
  • Cost: who should be paying for the packed lunch alternative?

And, if a policy of “free school meals for all” excludes food allergic children, could there potentially be an argument that this is treating a disabled child less favourably than another child? If a school says “allergic children can bring packed lunches”, would that be a reasonable adjustment for a disabled child? Or is it reasonable to expect a school to adapt its menu options to provide safe alternatives for allergic children?

Let’s hope it doesn’t become necessary to even think about such arguments. Fingers crossed the forthcoming guidance for schools will inspire confidence that food allergies CAN be catered for and that free school meals really are for “all”.

Further reading

 

7 comments

  1. Hi
    I take an alternative view. Regardless of my son’s multiple allergies and intolerances, I actually wouldn’t want him to have a school meal. I’ve seen the paltry offerings and when in the summer I was taken into the kitchen to see the ingredients of an iced lolly to be offered to all children, the smell of rancid vegetable oil and proliferation of poor quality white bread (he’s gluten free anyway) put me off my children (I have a baby too) ever having school lunches inflicted upon them. We swapped schools just before he started, but in the former school, at induction, examplar meals were given for parents to try. Pasta with a tiny smear of tomato sauce, pizza with a white flour crust with a smear of tomato and cheese. These were held up as aren’t our meals wonderful? I really don’t see how those meals offer a balance. They a white refined carb heavy and not at all what I would want my son to be fed. I provide nutritious meals. Today he has had potato slice which is a baked rosti-style meal containing potato, sweet potato, carrot, beetroot, courgette and watercress (for calcium) served with falafel balls (protein source). He had a packet of pineapple crisps – I don’t put fresh fruit in his lunchbox as he has two pieces of fruit as snacks (morning and afternoon) and fruit is often part of his breakfast. His lunch is balanced and nutritious containing veg, protein, carbs, and calcium (since he’s dairy free) and then he will have a balanced hot meaty or fish-based tea. I hardly ever give him commercially available gluten free breads as like a lot of refined wheat white loaves and commercial brown loaves too, they contain all kinds of additives which just make my son hyper. His stomach is very senstive. I make him wraps often from bob’s red mill gluten free flour blend which contains a variety of flours and is a “pure” product without additives. I fill it with good quality often organic meats and salad and provide carrot and cucumber sticks etc. I do pasta salads where the sauce is in balance with the pasta as the pasta itself (in this case gluten free, but even if it was wheat) is not so nutritious although of course grains and starchy stuff are important too. I will provide the same variety for my younger son when he gets to school whether or not he has allergies. I cannot think school catering for the masses (and if it becomes school-wide then it will be) can ever be as good as what a conscientious mother or father could provide. Portion size also worries me. My son is on 0.4th centile for weight and 2nd for height and feeding him correctly is very very important. He eats far more than most children I’ve seen and his reception teacher didn’t believe his portion sizes when she first saw them and was amazed he ate it. I think it would leave him very hungry and malnourished indeed. He is allergic to some nuts (but we have to say nut allergic outside as we have a list of no go nuts, a list of yes he can have and a list of we darent try without a challenge and that’s not practical), pine nuts and sesame – seems to have recovered from egg allergy. Not so hard to get around but…

    …He is also intolerant to dairy and gluten. Whilst we tested nd challenged him for wheat in hosp following a slight reaction of skin prick, he was found not to be ige allergic and the immunologist said to reintroduce. When we did, he was hyper, he was not even 3 and asked for his gaviscon (he has gastric reflux due to being born with a diaphragmatic hernia) and I haven’t repeated the exercise for a long while. When we gave up gluten his eczema improved. When I tried dairy free to help reflux, especially as I am milk intolerant and have been dairy free for 20 years on doc’s advice following an illness, his eczema disappreared but I haven’t discussed this with the doctors. I have researched diet carefully, and had his calcium levels checked. The school nurse was happy to put gluten and dairy intolerant on his careplan. So would he be compelled to have dairy as I haven’t had doctors say he has to be dairy free? Shouldn’t it be my choice as a mother whether to keep him dairy free as it has benefitted his health? I’m willing to go to a doctor and explain myself. Dairy is not an essential part of a diet. I even had a locum doctor once tell me wheat or dairy were likely responsible for his eczema (seems they were) and that neither were needed in the diet – we are the only species that “breastfeeds into adulthood from another species! He said oh the health visitor will tell you he needs x amount of milk but it’s not true. Some cultures don’t rely on dairy. And dairy isn’t the best source of calcium despite what we are told as it is low in magnesium also required. However I can’t give him sesame also high in calcium, but I give green leafies, fortified almond milk since we know he can have almond and a supplement just to make sure

    People will be allowed to be exempt for religious reasons. What about people who choose to follow vegan diets? I’m not a fan but surely it is the right of a family to be vegan if they want? What about other diets. Some people are in to the caveman craze – paleo diets. I have a friend that does this excluding dairy, grains and legumes. It does seem extreme and it is not for me but it helps her autistic spectrum child and he is thriving – a picture of health as he eats a very natural, non-refined diet.

    You see it isn’t just allergy children. It’s a range of children and families and their food beliefs. Who are the government to say this is what your child must eat and compel them to eat it where medical evidence isn’t such that the child shouldn’t have it?

    But in any case, I am quite happy for my child to be the lone child with the lunch box if school can’t cater for his multiple food issues. As he started school he was the only one who came home for lunch as I needed to be sure he was adjusting to the new routines and ate heartily at lunch given his low place on the centiles. I then integrated him into packed lunches. Why does inclusion have to be at the expense of nutrition – as I said a lot of free from items schools are likely to procure will be high in additives and refined things and I wouldn’t want my son eating them.

    Basically I’m against the school food plan in many ways. I think providing the option (it should be an option) of a free meal is great, but it is sinister to compel parents to take it up. Rather I think the government could educate parents on healthy balanced lunch boxes.

    I’m hopeful my son’s head won’t ban packed lunches – she is a woman who speaks a lot of common sense!

    And will they stop giving lunch children sugary puddings where they ban packed lunch children from sweet items? I actually don’t think it’s a bad idea to ban sweets and fizzy drinks (not something I ever give) although our head bans nothing saying she would only interfere if a child seemed to be suffering or a lunchbox was extreme. I worry she will retire though.

    I think the government should start trusting parents and educating those who need it / vunerable.

    Where it leaves the severely allergic children though isn’t great. I just don’t know whether they can keep everyone safe from x-contamination etc. Will ingredients be stringently checked.

    For my son though it’s not all about the allergies and intolerances. I work hard to keep all the components of his diet in careful check because if I get it wrong it doesn’t do for him and can affect his reflux etc. I know how best to feed him and I should be allowed to keep doing it. If it all goes extreme I shall be forced to homeschool and I would do that before having school meals forced on either of my children, allergies or not!!

    1. Hi Ruth – Thanks very much for your comment. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I do see what you are saying about compulsory school meals interfering with the right of parents to decide what’s best for their child. (Very interesting to hear your experiences of the quality of school dinners too!). Louise

      1. Hi yes, I was just thinking too, it doesn’t help people long term to make better dietary choices. There will be families where they will consider that the child has had a cooked lunch and perhaps the quality of the evening meal will suffer. It doesn’t help parents to provide better nutrition long term, nor the children as whilst they are supposed to be nutritionally balanced, it all depends on the choices they make at the hatch!

        I also forgot to put in I like to choose quality fresh ingredients which for me means organic where possible – certainly meats and butter are always organic because I don’t like the thought that animals live in awful cramped and unnatural conditions and that they are fed unnatural diets and pumped full of antibiotics! A cow should be in a field grazing on grass, chickens foraging around (not cramped together in a horrid barn etc). So again on that score I’d be unhappy with daily school meals as it goes against my beliefs for meat. Also a lot of meat is now being fed genetically modified foodstuffs and there are concerns about this and health issues – organic meat offers protection from this. I just want to retain the choice to feed my child how I choose to according the my beliefs about food! The allergy thing is definitely an important issue but there are so many layers to this for me! Thanks for your blog post – it raises very pertinent issues for allergy children 🙂

  2. My child is 5 and Gluten Free and the school head mistress and the office are refusing to help, get involved or even allow me to meet with the catering team.
    We can’t cater for Gluten free is all I have been told.
    What can I do ?
    Is my child expected to sit on her own and be the only one not eating a hot lunch?
    This is discrimination.

  3. I have to say I had a very positive experience with my son’s primary school (he started this week). I spoke to two members of staff who are with the children at mealtime, his teacher was already aware about his allergies when I met her and I spent about half an hour talking to the cook about their meal plan, ticking everything he could have. I also got to see the kitchen, check ingredients and have been told if they can’t cater for him on some days, I’d be allowed to bring in alternatives (e.g. vegan sausages or soya yoghurt) and they’d even reimburse me. I’m also happy with the quality of their food.

    What I was wondering about – which is how I just ended up on this site – are there provisions for children with milk allergy to receive free soya milk inmstead of the cows milk schools now supply for free/ subsidised? I can of course bring it in for him every day, but I won’t be reimbursed for that as the school get the cow’s milk supplied for free. Granted, it’s not the most pressing issue, but does anyone know?

    1. Hi Corinna – glad you’ve had a good experience with your son’s school (we have too, I’m pleased to say!). I saw a petition recently calling for milk alternatives to be made available for milk allergic or lactose intolerant children. I’ll try to find the link. So, from that, I don’t think there were provisions for free soya milk. Would you like me to post your question on the Nutmums facebook page (www.facebook.com/nutmums) – someone may know the latest position on soya milk and schools. Louise

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