Liberal Head of State Matthew Guy promised a try to provide free lunches at Victoria’s public schools if elected on November 26.
The A$300 million election policy aims to help families facing cost-of-living pressures, through a scheme to source meals from local businesses and cafes.
This idea is part of a small but growing trend in Australia to provide school meals. There are many good reasons to avoid children bringing their own food to school.
But before giving up the lunch box, we need to think carefully about how to replace it.
Most Australian children bring their own lunch
In theory, about 90% of australian children bring their own food to school, with 10% of children consuming food purchased from the school canteen or confectionery, or through food aid programs.
We know that the current system does not support the growth, health and development of children.
More than a third of the food eaten by students at school is unhealthy (such as sweet and savory biscuits, sweet muesli bars and crisps), most lunch boxes contain no vegetables.
We also know that 15% of children arrive at school without lunch or money to spend in the canteen, while families have limited budgets.
It’s not just about kids going hungry or eating too much meat pies. Good nutrition during school years supports health, growth, concentration, brain development and academic success.
Why don’t we have school meals in Australia?
One in two children in the world receive a meal at school.
Most high-income countries offer school meals, such as the United States, United Kingdom, Finland, Sweden, France and Japan. New Zealand is moving from a ‘box lunch’ system to school meals, and Canada is also exploring the idea.
Apart from some breakfast programs – which target children from disadvantaged backgrounds – Australia does not have a tradition of offering food at school. It’s largely because we’ve had a box lunch system for so long, it’s just the norm that parents are responsible for feeding their children.
But that is starting to change. There are now several pilot projects to provide food at individual school level, exploring options within schools or with local businesses.
There are also pockets of schools piloting food programs across Australia, including the Northern Territory, Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania. This is either to improve access to food in remote areas or to improve nutritious food at school.
A pilot of three schools in Tasmania was recently expanded to 30 schools in 2022-23. The schools participating in the pilot project offer pupils a cooked meal, based on a set menu, on certain days of the week. Where meals are prepared and served varies by school. School staff notice an increase in attendance on school lunch days and an improvement in social skills and school bonding.
Why are school canteens a good idea?
Provide food at school A lot of advantages. Not only does this save time and energy for time-poor families (no more morning meal preparation), but it ensures that all students have access to good food.
It can also create jobs and other opportunities to teach students about food production and healthy eating.
From an environmental point of view, it can reduce packaging waste.
We know there is support
In our to researchwe asked teachers, parents, canteen managers, aid workers and health promoters to come up with ideas on how school feeding could be prepared differently in Australia.
This group said that a lunch provided by the school and prepared on site was probably the most feasible and had an impact. By repurposing existing canteen facilities, schools could provide a nutritious sit-down meal.
But we need to think about these questions
But while we know there is a good level of support at the community level, moving from a primarily lunch box model to a school-provided meal system will take work.
There are several things we need to consider – it’s not just about handing out cheese and ham sandwiches. If meals are to be provided at school, they will need to adapt to different cultures, dietary needs and geographical areas.
It must also be durable. Funding must be continuous, and food supply chains and waste must be taken into account. It is important to note that those who have access to meals must be able to do so without stigma.
This leads to questions of who is responsible for managing this? For school-provided meals to be successful and embraced by school communities, they need the support of families, governments, health and education experts, and primary industries.
Schools will also need appropriate infrastructure, so that there is a place to prepare and eat food. With products and personnel, this leads to inevitable questions about costs and financing.
Finally, we also have to ask ourselves if this is a universal or an opt-in system. While many families will accept food at school, others may feel helpless and as if their choices are being taken away from them.
And then ?
School meals could offer many benefits, from creating jobs to fighting food insecurity, supporting local food production, reducing the burden on parents and supporting well-being, attendance and students’ academic performance.
With pockets of enthusiasm and innovation across Australia, it’s time to start a national conversation to help put universal school lunches on the menu of schools across Australia.