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Question raised over low take up of free meals at some Monmouthshire schools

Welsh Government cabinet member Jeremy Miles talking with pupils at Dewstow Primary, where he ate a school meal, in February 2024 (Pic: Monmouthshire County Council)

SOME children may be turning their noses up at free school dinners as they prefer processed food it has been suggested. 

Other explanations for the low take up of the free dinners being rolled out to all primary pupils include the Welsh Government’s insistance that same sized portions are served to all, from tiny four-year-olds in reception classes to strapping 11-year-old on the verge of starting secondary school. 

Councillors in Monmouthshire, which is one of the first authorities in Wales to have rolled out the Welsh Government’s commitment of universal, or free to all, school meals to all its primary schools were told take up has been higher in schools where less children were previously entitled to means-tested free school meals than those with the greatest need.

Schools still record the numbers entitled to a free school meal due to low household income, to measure policies intended to reduce poverty or inequality and so children from the very poorest homes can still receive additional help such as with uniform costs. 

Monmouthshire council leader Mary Ann Brocklesby said it is monitoring on monthly basis why nearly a quarter of a children aren’t accepting a free meal.

“The reasons are complex and vary from school to school,” said the Labour councillor for Llanelly Hill who noted the council’s average take up is 76 per cent, described as in the top three in Wales.

She said: “There is a hypothesis in some areas, it is deeply worrying and it is shared across Wales and being fed back by all local authorities, those from households that have a high dependency on ultra processed foods the take up of what is basically a home cooked, nutritionally good to an all Wales standard meal, of low salt and sugar content, is not acceptable to the taste buds of certain children who do not want the meals. We are testing that at the moment.” 

The leader said she hoped cooking lessons and initiatives such as forest schools with growing areas will mean in Monmouthshire pupils “over time develop a pallet that is more amenable to good quality food.” 

Some schools now ask pupils what they want for lunch at registration, rather than doing so weekly or monthly, and other changes have seen sausages, rather than roast dinners, back on the menu on Wednesday as well as no longer using ready mixes. Cllr Brocklesby acknowledged the changes haven’t been universally popular. 

Council officer Debra Hill-Howells said the Welsh Government’s rules on same size portions is also contributing to food waste. 

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She said: “The guidance tells us we must serve the same portion size to all primary learners regardless of age and that is from reception through to year six. It is a frustration for us and parents and frustrates the older learners who are not getting enough and it is too much for some of the younger ones.” 

Any changes to menus have to be assessed by dieticians and approved by the Welsh Government but the council has more than 1,000 responses to its school meals survey.

More pupils being fed by schools has also meant some require pupils to eat within a certain time scale and canteens are now nosier and Ms Hill-Howells said “some don’t like that environment”. 

The council has raised the issues with the Welsh Government which is looking at the guidance and Cllr Brockelsby said when economy secretary Jeremy Miles visited Dewstow Primary in Caldicot, in February when he was the education minister, pupils gave him their views over a school dinner. 

She said: “We deliberately took him to a school where there is a low take up so he could discuss that because it is an equalities and social justice issue as much as it is about food.” 

The council could automatically enroll all pupils for free school meals in part to address concerns some parents don’t have access to computers or phones to register for them.