What happened to the public sector food supply chain? Why feeding children is not the same as children eating.


We are now poorer than most people can remember in their lifetimes and, as a nation, we are becoming sicker. In these circumstances, when children go to school or people need to stay in hospital, the food they are offered as part of learning/ care is intended to assist; to help them learn, to make them better. You would think this is a given, but sadly it isn’t.


Unchecked, modern food delivers modern food problems. Managed by Big Food companies, the modern food supply chain is much more interested in the supply of poor food – because that is where the profit is. Already dominated by the supply of ultra-processed-food (UPF) – over 60% of what we all eat is ultra-processed food (UPF). And, in the context of this blog, 75% of all food fed to children in school is UPF – Big Food and all associated with it, calls the shots and, until things change, we will all become unhealthier as a consequence.


As a first defence against hunger/ poor diet, in the UK we have a publicly-funded food system in place in schools and hospitals to make sure the parts of our communities who are the most vulnerable are supported. In this space – and with public money being spent – it was intended for those being paid to to do so, to put good food into the stomachs of children or those in hospital sick. This was the intention. Sadly, it is not the reality and, along the way, something has happened to the quality of the food the public sector is feeding to its customers.


When the idea of school food was conceived as an example, it was mostly about feeding children to prevent hunger – it was a time of poor houses and other such things. Today however, meals can be offered with increased food knowledge and linked technological benefits. It is technology shift that could, if used with the right intentions, offer high quality food and provide choice to every child in the the school food chain – this would mean they would be eating rather than being fed. So why does this not happen and what is getting in the way?


Here are few current examples of the problem.


  • Putting cleaning companies with no food expertise in charge of providing school food. This about feeding children not allowing them to eat – there are stand out examples of this.
  • Allowing companies to deliver school food because they offer schools new kitchen equipment or expansive poor food menus – another example of feeding over eating – again, there are plenty of examples of this.
  • Procurement teams choosing providers based on low cost over everything else. This leads to feeding and is still the norm UK wide.
  • And when schools carry on warming up ultra-processed foods claiming it’s healthy, because they can no longer get the correct staff to cook meals from scratch. Now increasingly common and means children are being fed rather than being able to eat.


Most schools (there are few good food outliers) are in the ‘feeding’ category but, crucially, they are able to claim they are not… why?


An important place to start is and, contrary to a current opinion, driven by those who do not want to see any change in the current system – there is enough money in the school system to make sure every child eats a great tasting meal every day. But here is the conflict… the majority of the UK school food system is not set up to let children eat, because children eating well costs, and cost equals less profit. And whether it’s the public or private sector, profit is the primary driver.


Feeding children the cheapest possible meal has become the intended outcome. Now, profit is not a bad thing and, in this context, profit achieved by making sure children eat well is to be encouraged. However, in 2024, with the abundance of good food we have and, as already noted, with enough money in the system to produce good fresh meals for every child and still make a profit – the poor food, primary profit outcome apparent throughout the public food system is shocking.


The discussion about profit over quality always brings a strong counter defence in which the school food world often responds with ‘Well, if the food is so poor how come it meets nutritional standards? The simple answer is, the current standards were written in 2014 and we are now in 2024 and, in ten years, our knowledge of the damage food does to children’s health is much more advanced. The standards are outdated and they are no longer able to protect the health of children as they were intended. To bring you, the reader, closer to the subject matter, here is a couple of examples of how the standards are applied in schools across the UK.


If fish is on the menu in a primary school and your child doesn’t like fish – and therefore doesn’t eat at all – according to the measurement of nutritional standards for schools, your child will have still eaten and has, in fact, eaten fish. How so, you may ask?


The answer is back to profit over quality. Across the past ten years, the school food supply chain has arranged itself to apply the standards in its favour, meaning the standards, outdated as they are, now protect the supply of poor food to children and do not and cannot consider children going hungry as a result. Using another example; most food in primary schools is UPF, yet it all passes the standards. So here we have the worst of food, dominating the supply onto children’s plates, damaging their health – but it all passes the standards.


Michael Pollan, the food writer wrote – ‘if the food is good, you don’t need rules’ – yet the public sector supply chain is full of rules. Some rules regarding food safety are important, but those intended to protect a child’s diet and health are failing children. Now, they’re only useful to protect the school food supply chain and its continued pursuit of profit over quality.


We are in very challenging times. The cost-of-living implications continue to wreak havoc in our communities and it’s estimated that over 50% of households can no longer afford to purchase healthier food. This puts greater emphasis on the public sector food supply chain to make sure those they feed, eat well.


As a food business/ supplier, if your aim it to create good food for everyone, that is where you will end up. If, however, your approach is to talk about providing good food – or claiming that you do – that is where you will end up.


When providing food for human consumption, it is incumbent on food companies/services to protect the health of people first. This is especially true of the public sector food chain. With this in mind, there is a long way to go, and the health of children is certainly not getting any better as consequence. Choice is the big thing here, and the important first step for publicly-funded food services is to choose to take it or be forced to take via Government intervention. Either way, change is required and required quickly.


As a food company, we have taken out all UPFs from our meals and we have 100 new #ZeroUPF recipes, suitable for all tastes. Working with children, we supply meals they want to eat – and the same goes for every customer we deliver our meals to.


If we can do it, and do it within budget, ask yourself why others don’t want to do it, too?