Children and Families Minister Will Quince said he recognized schools were ‘not immune’ to the cost of living crisis, but had to manage their own budgets.
His comments came as the association of school caterers Laca warned that the quality of school meals would deteriorate if funding was not earmarked by the government.
Mr Quince said the government had ‘really clear school food standards, all of which are about healthy and nutritious meals for children while they are at school’.
“I recognize the global inflationary pressures from which the school catering sector and schools are not immune – which is why we have invested an additional £7billion during the Schools Spending Review period. , including an additional £4 billion this year. he told the PA news agency.
He said that’s also why the Universal Infant Free School Meal funding rate increase was extended last month.
The government has increased the rate by 7p per pupil, retroactive to April 1, with all pupils in Reception, Years 1 and 2 receiving £2.41 per meal instead of £2.34.
Campaigners said the rise was well below inflation.
Mr Quince said he will ‘continue to work with the sector and monitor this very closely as I need to ensure that children across the country are getting a healthy and nutritious meal at lunchtime’.
Asked if schools would be pushed into deficit if they tried not to pass on rising food costs to pupils, he said the extra £7billion would help schools with that, but they had to “manage their own individual budgets”.
He said he would speak with Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, who would in turn speak with the Treasury on how to better support schools and families.
A Laca survey found that 90% of caterers are experiencing food shortages due to supply chain issues and rising food costs, while nearly eight in 10 caterers – 78% – have had to modify or reduce menu options due to supply chain issues.
In the survey of 170 Laca members, conducted between May 19 and May 25, 40% said they were worried about not being able to meet school food standards in the new school year, while more than half – 55% – said school feeding quality would deteriorate if things did not improve.
The association has also raised concerns that some children are “falling through the cracks” due to the cost of living crisis.
Laca said 57% of its members had seen a drop in the use of paid meals, although 54% said eligibility for free school meals had increased, which meant that many children who needed meals free schools were absent due to the cost of living. crisis, he said.
He said the 2.9% increase in universal free school meals for infants is “insufficient” to address the challenges facing the industry and called on the government to increase funding in line with free school meals, from £2.41 per meal to £2.47 per meal. .
Laca said he supports National Food Strategy recommendations to raise the threshold for free school meals to £20,000 a year – currently only families with an annual household income of £7 or less £400 is eligible, after tax and excluding benefits.
The government did not adopt this recommendation as part of its food strategy, published in June.
Mr Quince said he would ‘continue to explore’ this suggestion.
“It’s definitely something I can continue to explore and look at – what’s really important with free school meals in particular is that we’re targeting the support we have for the most vulnerable and the lowest paid. , that’s exactly what we’re doing right now.”
Laca calls for all funding for school meals to be earmarked. Its survey found that more than a third of caterers – 34 per cent – had considered using more processed food in meals, and 38 per cent said they had not received the full £2.47 from schools per meal.
Laca National President Jacquie Blake said the results are an “urgent wake-up call” and warned that without adequate funding the “most vulnerable children” will miss their only hot meal of the day.
She added: “Too many children are already falling through the cracks – their families can’t afford a paid school meal, but they don’t qualify for free school meals.”
Some school leaders said they were trying desperately not to let rising food prices affect the quality of school meals, but it was stretching their budgets in other areas.
James Bowen, policy director of headteachers’ union NAHT, said all households are seeing ‘a steep rise in costs’ and this ‘can only have an impact on schools and school meals’.
“Schools will work with their suppliers to maintain quality and try to reduce costs for families, but that means absorbing higher costs into already tight budgets. As always, that means a choice on what to cut spending elsewhere,” he said.
Paul Gosling, NAHT chairman and headmaster of Exeter Road Community Primary School in Devon, said his school had delayed rising meal costs to avoid putting pressure on families, but added : “For the moment, the school absorbs the increase in costs but it is not sustainable.