Study reveals planning neglect led to COVID-19 school meals crisis

  • Date

    Wed 22 Mar 23

Headshot of Professor John Preston with a backdrop of vegetables

It took seventy years before national emergency feeding plans were put to the test, and during the pandemic they were shown to have failed according to research at the University of Essex.

Sociologist Professor John Preston used archival data from once-secret Government files, now held by the National Archives and the Imperial War Museum to research the history of emergency plans. He found originally robust civil defence plans for emergency feeding in a national crisis were undermined by successive Governments and exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. His findings have been published in The British Journal of Sociology of Education.

Professor John Preston said: “The UK failed to adequately supply nutritional school meals to children, particularly working-class pupils, during the COVID-19 pandemic. This was a result of systematic neglect by a succession of Governments in planning for a national crisis, leading to the failure of the voucher scheme for meals, and the poor quality of provision, arising from decades of the undermining of expertise in the school meals service and underfunded provision in State schools.”

In the late 1940s and early 50s a post-war dividend with investment in school kitchens and staff meant that there were plans for the school meals service, to feed not just children, but to provide meals for the whole population in a national crisis. Well-resourced plans for ‘messing for the masses’ were devised where groups of one hundred people would sit down in shifts in schools to eat under a system of ‘crash feeding’.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Ministry of Food and Emergency Planning Officers took control over emergency feeding plans, criticising the professionalism of school meals staff.

Professor Preston’s study reveals:

  • Independent schools made it clear that they did not want to be part of national plans for emergency feeding, and they were reassured by the Government that they did not need to be part of those arrangements.
  • People would have to pay for their children’s meals in an emergency, with plans for a ‘Food Flying Squad’ a fleet of vans that could be dispatched to areas with a small stock of tea, sugar, and tinned milk.
  • The idea of providing meals for children in an emergency virtually disappeared in the 1970s and 1980s. Although the school meal service was part of local authority plans only one country (Leicestershire) expressed that they had a barely acceptable plan.
  • In subsequent decades national supplies of food, for use in an emergency (‘the strategic food stockpile), were depleted. In 2019 the Government expressed the view that emergency feeding was a matter that involved close working with the private sector, rather than public provision.

Professor Preston said: “The findings of the research have implications for other areas of long-term planning. We only find out about the failure of emergency plans in an actual emergency, so if Governments are effectively to plan for a crisis, then they need to ensure that their plans are up to date and robust."