‘The cost has become astronomical’: UK schools struggle with rising food prices

Heads reluctant to increase burden on families already caught in cost of living crisis

At St Jude’s, a small Church of England primary school in south London, the morning breakfast club is exceptionally busy. Over the past six weeks the number of pupils coming in to have porridge, scrambled egg and fruit smoothies before the school day begins has climbed from eight to 22 – nearly a quarter of the Southwark school’s population.

Families hit by the cost of living crisis are increasingly desperate, says the acting deputy head, Matt Jones. They need help with their debts; they can’t pay their bills. Staff are making more and more referrals to StepChange, a debt charity, and the school has made discretionary payments to help families unable to afford gas, electricity or nappies.

Budgets are tight, says Jones, but the school is determined to protect quality school dinners for its children, come what may. “We are taking a stance,” he said. “For many of our children, the food they get at our school might be the one decent meal they get each day. So we’ve got to make sure it continues.”

As inflation sends the cost of ingredients spiralling, suppliers have told schools they are doing everything they can to absorb rising costs, but at some point the increases will have to be passed on. Without additional funding from the government, schools may have to opt for smaller portions or cheaper ingredients.

The rapid increase in costs is shocking. One school catering manager in Liverpool said 5kg of long grain rice rose from £6.49 in April to £8.30 in May, 5kg of fresh chicken fillet went up from £19.96 to £28.53, and 1.7kg of tinned tuna in brine rose from £6.99 to £8.07.

Some schools are considering putting up the price of school lunches next term for those who pay, but they are reluctant to increase the burden on families already caught in the cost of living crisis.

Helen Stout, headteacher at Meadowfield primary school in Halton Moor in Leeds, has had to reluctantly take the decision to stop funding milk for the school’s 200 key stage 2 children at the end of next week.
Helen Stout, headteacher at Meadowfield primary school in Halton Moor in Leeds, has had to reluctantly take the decision to stop funding milk for the school’s 200 key stage 2 children at the end of next week. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

Helen Stout is the headteacher of Meadowfield primary school in Halton Moor, Leeds, where many parents are already struggling to feed their children. The school serves a disadvantaged community where some families have been held back by generations of worklessness.

More than 60% of her pupils are eligible for free school meals and the school provides breakfast for all children every day – “bread and spread” to make sure stomachs are not entirely empty at the start of the day. There are, however, worrying signs of hunger, Stout says. “Members of staff say children are gorging on food in the morning.”

Meadowfield is still providing food parcels for the families most in need – a legacy of lockdown – with the help of a charity called Rethink Food, which intercepts food that is just past its sell-by date and destined for landfill. “It’s all perfectly fine to be eaten. It comes to us and we bag it up,” Stout said. Staff have also been directing parents to a charity called Zarach for basic items such as bedding, beds and mattresses.

The school has already decided – reluctantly – to stop funding milk for its 200 key stage 2 children at the end of next week. “The cost has become astronomical,” Stout said, “but [the decision] sits uneasily with me.”

She is horrified at the suggestion that children might be given smaller school lunches made with cheaper ingredients because of rising costs. “For some of my pupils, we know that it’s the only hot meal they are getting a day. I would have hoped school dinners would be sacrosanct. We can’t educate them if they’re hungry.”

At Meadowfield, like many schools, there are other telltale signs that families are struggling – in children’s personal hygiene and appearance. Children come in without socks, while others are wearing school uniforms that are old and have been handed down not just once but through a couple of siblings.

Dr Paul Gosling, the headteacher at Exeter Road community primary school in Devon, and president of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said his school was struggling to absorb the impact of rising food costs to protect families.

“We have held off increasing the cost of meals to paying families as it will be another pressure on them. At the moment the school is absorbing the increased cost but it is not sustainable.”


Sally Weale

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
All families on universal credit should get free school meals, says ex-children’s tsar
Anne Longfield says poverty hasn’t been tackled well enough, as teaching unions in England urge chancellor to expand free meals

Tobi Thomas

31, May, 2022 @7:46 AM

Article image
More pupils in England and Wales unable to afford school meals, say caterers
Effect of cost of living crisis also felt by canteens struggling to provide beef and chicken, finds trade body survey

Richard Adams Education editor

04, Jul, 2022 @3:35 PM

Article image
Hungry children miss out on free meals – and struggling schools cannot help
Families from ‘working poor’ omitted from scheme, and costs crisis leaves schools powerless to subsidise them

Richard Adams Education editor

10, Nov, 2022 @5:00 PM

Article image
Teachers reveal scale of pupils’ hunger as 100,000 frozen out of free school meals
Exclusive: Call for FSM income cap to be raised as children in England come to school with mouldy bread or even nothing

Sally Weale, Richard Adams and Patrick Butler

10, Nov, 2022 @7:02 PM

Article image
'Where's Boris?': anger among volunteers at food bank on PM's patch
Refusal to back free school meals extension riles families and volunteers in London and Bolton

Aamna Mohdin and Amy Walker

26, Oct, 2020 @5:00 PM

Article image
Marcus Rashford: public rallies behind campaign to end child food poverty
Covid-hit firms tweet offers of food donations after MPs reject free school meals plan

Alexandra Topping and Patrick Butler

23, Oct, 2020 @10:59 AM

Article image
‘The benefit is massive’: the school offering free meals to all students
Urswick school in Hackney says pupils are thriving under its policy, while another school offers evening meals to families

Sally Weale and Richard Adams

10, Nov, 2022 @5:00 PM

Article image
‘Cost of eating’ crisis: price of school lunches up by a third in parts of England
Exclusive: Increases since 2019 also outstrip funding for free school meals as costs jump, Lib Dems find

Richard Adams Education editor

01, May, 2023 @2:49 PM

Article image
How families on the breadline are ineligible for free school meals
Households in England must earn less than £7,400 a year before benefits and after tax to qualify, excluding 800,000 children in poverty

Patrick Butler Social policy editor

10, Nov, 2022 @5:00 PM

Article image
School leaders report rise in pupils not on free meals going hungry
Increasing numbers of children cannot afford lunch and are coming to school without adequate clothes

Sally Weale Education correspondent

02, Dec, 2022 @6:00 AM