During May 2008 qualitative research was undertaken to better understand why some people who are eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) are not currently claiming the benefit. This involved ethnographic studies in three separate schools in the North-West of England.
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In broad-terms, cost was the key factor when determining why children were given a packed lunch over school dinners. The meals are £8 per week… “But over a month that equates to £32, and what, if like many parents, you have two, three, or even four children. That equates to £32, £64, £96, or £128 per month. These numbers just aren’t workable” one parent stated. However, such financial considerations must be compared against those on packed lunches where increasing food costs have added an average of £15 onto a family’s weekly supermarket shop.
The broad consensus towards costs also underlines the validity of asking why more parents are not claiming FSM. Alongside other benefits it is estimated that, based on a 40-week school year, a family with a child attending a primary school could be better off by £625 per year. It therefore appears puzzling that whilst financial concerns are paramount there remain a significant number of parents not claiming FSM.
Why are eligible parents or guardians not claiming Free School Meals?
Control: There is a perception that packed lunches enable parents to retain control over their child’s diet. For example, a number of parents stated that they prefer to know what their child eats at school. Such views were reflected in the accounts of school staff that linked the lack of FSM take-up to “new age parenting” and a perception that families have becoming increasingly “fussy eaters”.
Preconceptions: Interestingly, the majority of children on packed lunches would rather eat a school dinner. At one primary school five children who are currently on packed lunches stated that they would prefer to be on school dinners. The study suggests that preconceptions are often strongest amongst parents, and these preconceptions are often negative. “Parents still believe that school meals are about two-heads in the hatch serving up lumpy custard” noted an area supervisor. This was evident as parents often expressed concern over the frequency with which children are given a dessert. However, this particularly preconception could be misplaced. One Head Teacher suggested that there are a lot of good things about the deserts on offer. Many deserts include Apple, Raspberry, or similar, and sugar is part of a balanced diet and children need an element of that also.
Cultural Norms and The Internet: Communication to and from a school tends to revolve around a weekly newsletter, the school office, and direct phone contact. One School Administrator stated “Parents, guardians, and families understand such channels. They are part of the culture”. This does not mean to suggest that the Internet has no role to play, but even for those parents with an awareness of the web, such cultural norms would have to be challenged and possibly used as an introduction to new forms of contact. The research also shed light on an important potential barrier to FSM take-up – Internet accessibility. Parents often explained how they lacked access to the Internet, a dynamic that was stressed in particular by members of the school staff – “I am not sure everyone have access to the Internet, and would they all do it?” and “Parents now have the option to pay online. Up until two months ago we only had one parent who actually paid for school meals online. We now only have two parents paying online”.
Change: The anomaly surrounding the large number of parents not claiming FSM could be accounted for by the fact that a number of parents circumstances change very quickly, and often. For example, one parent went from being unemployed to employed and they believed, rightly or wrongly, that they could no longer claim for a FSM. They did the right thing by sending their child to school with a packed lunch, but then failed to contact the local council and register the change of circumstance. There is a belief that once contacted is made with the school office then the authority is automatically notified. This, however, is not the case.
Peer Influence: The benefit of packed lunches was often associated with the quality and style of the packed lunch boxes themselves. Evidence indicated that children influence one another in terms of the products they bring into the canteen.
Jamie Oliver: Findings also highlighted the impact of campaigns centred on the promotion of healthy eating in schools and, in particular, the role of Jamie Oliver. Amongst a number of comments towards this effect, one food supply manager stated, “The Jamie Oliver did not help our cause in promoting school meals. Jamie’s research team called our offices, but they were looking for the worst of the worst, and they got the worst of the worst”.
Social stigma is often cited as the primary reason for parents and children alike not taking up FSM. Findings in this particular study suggest that in general terms stigma is not an important factor. For example, school staff explained how stigma associated with FSM has diminished greatly in recent years due largely to the number of different payment options that are now available. The system has been reinvented and, in theory, the classroom has no way of knowing who is claiming a FSM and who is not.
How have schools and caterers reacted to the trends put forward?
Each of the three schools showed exemplary thought leadership and innovations towards food in schools.
New Systems: Following on from a new system that promotes choice through a school menu, one school is now looking to tackle the financial pressures that many parents are under. The school aims to establish a system that allows any child to benefit from one, two, or even three school meals per week, with the remaining days spent on packed lunch.
Communication and take-up campaigns: Each school has sought to promote school meals through their weekly newsletter, organising special events, and running cooking and food awareness events, and even offering tasting sessions at parent evenings. Some schools encourage a new intake with offers, for example, buy one school dinner and you will get one free.
Visioning: One school was particularly keen to develop a more innovative approach to the supply of school meals. Dissatisfied with an ‘all time low’ in the numbers of children taking school meals, one Head Teacher has outlined stellar plans to improve quality and ‘achieve 100% school meal take-up’.