As schools begin to find a new sense of normal post-lockdown, the government scheme that provides infants with daily fruit and vegetables continues to be on pause. With no confirmed date for reinstation, Sophie Parsons details the importance of the programme and how to advocate for its return date.
School lunches are, for many of us, looked back on with fondness and a degree of nostalgia. Whether you favoured packed lunches of tightly wrapped sandwiches, slightly soggy and limp, or the dining hall’s somewhat lumpy mashed potatoes, lunch time offered some much needed light relief. For many children though, the importance of school lunch goes beyond that of simply a break from times tables and phonics instead providing a crucial opportunity to receive a nutritious, and more importantly free, hot meal.
Having started school in the early 2000s, the age of cartoon-covered plastic lunch boxes and Jamie Oliver’s banning of turkey twizzlers, I was one of the first to witness the introduction of the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme (SVFS). The SVFS is a government-run programme that has run for the past 16 years, with the aim to provide every four to six-year-old attending a fully state-funded primary or infant school a piece of free fruit or veg every day. Each year, the programme helps to provide an essential 450 million pieces of fruit to 2.3 million children around the country. Presented as a mid-morning snack, playground games are fueled with that day’s fruit or vegetable of choice: bananas, pears, boxes of raisins, mini cucumbers and vine tomatoes on rotation.
Inspired by the ‘five a day’ campaign, the introduction of the SVFS in 2004 hoped to rectify NHS research that suggested that children in England were eating around three portions of fruit and vegetables a day, with many eating fewer. For many parents, though, the appeal lies not only in the nutritious benefit of this mid-morning snack, but also in the fact that it is provided freely, to each and every child. Pupil poverty has come to be a growing concern for many school teachers, with an increasing number of children relying on the food provided through government schemes such as SVFS and school lunch vouchers to be fed. According to a survey by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), three-quarters of schools in the UK have created breakfast club initiatives in an effort to ensure that pupils are beginning the day with the energy needed. And while these clubs are essential to so many, the distribution of free fruit and veg in the morning can help to provide those who can’t make the before school meal with that vital first piece of food for the day.
Come the summer holidays, the financial pressure of feeding families for three meals a day, for six weeks has often left many parents and consequently children relying on food banks to eat. In 2019, the Trussell Trust reported a significant spike in emergency usage over the six week school holidays, with many families turning to the charity in lieu of the school-provided free meals. Only recently has the government offered such families the opportunity to continue to benefit from the food voucher scheme outside of term time, following an open letter from footballer Marcus Rashford. In a public plea, Rashford asked for the protection of “the lives of some of our most vulnerable [to be made] a top priority”. Speaking from a place of personal experience, the footballer’s letter captured the urgency of food poverty and malnutrition that is faced by many families come the summer holidays. Lockdown, unsurprisingly, has created a similar crisis for both parents and head teachers alike.
As the global pandemic shut down our shops, workplaces and schools, the SVFS too was suspended. In a statement provided to The Guardian, a government spokesperson accredited the pausing of the programme to the prevention of food waste and the redistribution of funds to better support the ongoing pandemic. Despite schools remaining open for children of essential workers and vulnerable families, the government’s decision to halt the programme meant schools were left to self-fund and source the fruit for themselves, with many not having the funds to offer any kind of solution.
As evidenced in a report conducted by Northumbria University into how children’s diets have been affected since the Covid-19 lockdown, “half of the children surveyed (45%) said they hadn’t eaten any fruit [for three days], with the remaining children having eaten an average of half a portion a day.” For many disadvantaged families suddenly finding themselves not only homeschooling but needing to provide possibly one or two more meals a day, the lack of government provided food, and more specifically fruit and vegetables, has only gone on to increase the disparity of food poverty.
Early June saw the UK enter its ‘second phase’ of the government’s plan against the pandemic and with it restrictions on schools began to lift. Those aged four to six, plus the ten to eleven-year-olds at the other end of the schools, were given the opportunity to return to the classroom. However, the SVFS remains suspended until at least the end of the school year.
With the government ambiguous in their commitment to reinstating the programme, parents and teachers are beginning to fear that the scheme won’t return come the autumn. Spearheading the campaign that hopes this won’t be the case are Bath-based parents Hannah Cameron McKenna and Sarah Pritchard. The duo’s petition has been supported by the likes of Feeding Britain, Chefs in Schools and The Soil Association, with vegetarian chef Anna Jones also advocating for public engagement in the cause on her social media platforms.
So what can we do to help?
Hannah and Sarah are offering a couple of starting points: namely signing the petition, sharing it with your friends, your family and social platforms. If you are personally affected by this, be it as a parent or a teacher, The Soil Association’s Food for Life programme have created a survey to better understand how this fundamental change may affect people. Want to go one step further? Email your local MP and ask when the scheme is going to be reintroduced.
Cutting the SVFS entirely would only go on to harm those children most disadvantaged, removing the guarantee of some children receiving breakfast or eating any fruit or vegetables that day. Having changed the lives of many over the past 16 years, such a programme has come to be a crucial lifeline for so many children and parents.
Find out more about Hannah and Sarah’s campaign here.