Food for millions of school meals could be destined for the bin because schools weren’t given adequate notice of the national lockdown.
Fresh and perishable ingredients for a week’s worth of school meals, up to 15m, may have to be disposed of after Boris Johnson announced that all pupils across England – except children of key workers and vulnerable pupils – will move to remote education from Tuesday until the February half-term.
National waste collections company BusinessWaste.co.uk says it expects to collect mountains of perishable food from around 5,000 schools, which typically order a week ahead in advance.
A spokesperson for the company said: “This is a national disaster. The government have well and truly let the schools down – they have allowed them to open and prepare for the weeks ahead, which of course means stocking the fridges high for this week’s school dinners, and now those dinners are going in the bin.
“The schools simply don’t have the freezers required to store all the perishable food and that unfortunately will mean the vast majority is to be thrown away.
“The amount of food waste caused by a sudden lockdown is staggering – if they had been given warning then it could have been sent to other places, but now food banks will be overwhelmed and they typically only take non-perishable goods.”
They added that the vast majority of schools do not have dedicated food waste bins, which could divert the food waste to an anaerobic digestion plant. Instead, it will end up rotting in landfill.
Asked about the threat of waste, a Department for Education spokesperson said schools would have to continue providing food for the reduced number of pupils still attending, as well as free meals to eligible students via food parcels or vouchers.
They added: “We encourage schools to work with their caterers to minimise any food waste, making these meals available to those who need them.”
But what will happen to all the food that has been prepared in anticipation of children being in schools is unclear.
Food charity FareShare, which played a major role in redistributing surplus food to vulnerable children at the start of the lockdown, said it had not yet seen any increase in the amount of surplus food diverted to it since the announcement of the lockdown closures.
The charity has more than doubled the amount of food distributed across the UK since March 2020 to two million meals a week.
School governor and councillor Matthew Tomlinson, who is chair of the Leyland Methodist Infant School, told the Lancashire Post: “We give out 200 school meals every day and had all of those meals thrown in the bin yesterday because the announcement came just 12 hours before.
“By next week we hope that we won’t be in this position, but in this first week back, there are significant amounts of food being thrown away, unfortunately. Over the week, hundreds of good meals will be thrown away and wasted.
“It is too late to set up food donations for perishable food that needs to be eaten and we can’t turn up at food banks with hundreds of ham sandwiches that need eating that day.”
The amount of waste is all the more galling after England and Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford successfully lobbied the government into a U-turn over its free school meals policy in England during the first coronavirus lockdown, ensuring children in need would receive meals over the summer. Rashford’s mother Melanie Maynard would sometimes go without food to ensure her children could eat.
Food Foundation food campaign released data in June that suggested as many as 200,000 children had to skip meals because their families could not access help during the first lockdown in March.
In his address to the nation on Monday night, Johnson promised free school meals would continue while schools were closed, winning praise from Rashford, who was awarded an MBE during October in the delayed Queen’s Birthday Honours list.
Rashford has formed a child food poverty task force, linking up with some of the nation’s biggest supermarkets and food brands, and is an ambassador for the FareShare charity which fights against hunger and food waste.