The School Meals Service: Past, Present - And Future?

The School Meals Service: Past, Present - And Future? is an ESRC and AHRC funded project that will explore the aims, achievements and limitations of the UK School Meals Service (SMS) from its inception in 1906.

Photograph of two children eating a school meal

Project Overview:

Through a combination of historical and ethnographic approaches, the project seeks to discover the Service's impact on schools, communities and pupils and what lessons may be learned from the lived experiences of SMS recipients, teachers and catering staff, both now and in the past.

While always a much-discussed area of social policy, school meals have achieved particular prominence during the Covid-19 pandemic. With a significant rise in the percentage of children eligible for free school meals since the start of the pandemic (20.8% or 1.74 million children up from 17.3% in January 2020) (DFE, 2021), accusations of poorly-planned policy decision making and ad hoc interventions have been levelled at the UK government response to feeding pupils throughout the crisis especially when schools were forced to move to mainly online provision (House of Commons 2020; Lobb 2021).

Starting from the position that the SMS is a valuable and valued part of the UK welfare state, we ask whether these problems with the SMS are due to the Covid crisis or rather the result of longstanding issues which require system level changes to correct. Anecdotal evidence indicates that dissatisfaction with the SMS can be traced back many years. It is visible in the campaign led by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver in the early 2000s against the use of cheap processed foods such as the now infamous 'turkey twizzlers' and in the enduring reputation of Margaret Thatcher as the 'milk snatcher' of the 1970s (Smith, 2010). We believe this question can only be addressed with a deep, critical analysis of the history of the SMS in the UK, in terms of both the intention and impact of policy choices and implementation.

Drawing on the conceptual framework of a 'usable past' (Tyack and Cuban 1994), this project will conduct the first systematic policy and social history of the SMS from its beginnings in 1906 until the present day, combined with an ethnographic study of the experience of school feeding by children today across four partner schools in Bradford, London, Cardiff and Glasgow. This combination of historical and contemporary ethnographic research will enable a longitudinal assessment of the current challenges facing the SMS. Insights drawn from the research will allow the project team to offer critical, historically-informed recommendations to both policy makers and practitioners designed to secure the future of the SMS in the UK.

For more information please visit the School Meals Service project website.

In the media:

Breaking Britain Podcast: The Politics of School Meals: Food, Community and the British Welfare State. Heather discusses what political controversies over the provision of school meals can tell us about social change in the UK.

Project Length:

Two years starting in 2023.

Project Team:

Professor Gary McCulloch (IoE, University College London) – Principal Investigator;
Dr Heather Ellis (SoE, University of Sheffield) – Co-Investigator;
Dr Gurpinder Singh Lalli (SoE, University of Wolverhampton) – Co-Investigator;
plus three Research Associates.

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