The Government is turning a blind eye to unhealthy school meals, according to a new report from the Soil Association.

The annual State of the Nation report into children’s food in England includes the findings of an 18-month investigation into school meals which brings together the views of caterers, school meal providers and headteachers.

The 30+ interviews revealed that caterers are struggling with cost pressures that are affecting food quality in UK schools, with many trading down from British food to lower quality imported ingredients. Some caterers are knowingly not complying with the Government’s School Food Standards in order to make cost savings. The report estimates that at least 60% of secondary schools are failing to meet legal standards, with many offering meals lacking in veg, oversized sugary puddings and unhealthy snacks. Rob Percival, Soil Association head of food policy, said: “Children across England are being conned out of a healthy and high-quality school meal and the Government is to blame.

Our investigation revealed a concerning picture of declining food quality, driven by inadequate funding and lax Government policy. “While many schools and caterers are working tirelessly to serve high-quality meals, they are facing a cocktail of pressures. Rather than investing in school meals and supporting schools and caterers to meet standards, the Government is turning a blind eye to illegal and unethical practices instead.

“Karen Crane, school meals lead at Food for Life Gold school Brownsover Community Infant School in Warwickshire, said: “High food standards show the difference a good nutritious school dinner can make to our pupils. Since we became a Food for Life Gold school, we have noticed the difference in the afternoon learning of the children. School dinners need the continued support of the Government to safeguard all our children’s futures – ensuring all schools are compliant with the legal standards is a vital part of this!”

The Soil Association’s report includes five recommendations for Government action and investment. The recommendations aim to tackle the inter-related crises of climate, nature and health, highlighting the value of real, fresh food, which is often overlooked in the hype around obesity and calories.

INTRODUCE A ‘PLANT PROTEIN DAY’ IN SCHOOLS– use the update of the School Food Standards to encourage ‘less and better’ meat and ‘more and better’ plants. Serving plant-based proteins one day a week, will help to afford to serve more sustainable, British meat on their menus

INTRODUCE AN AMBITIOUS TARGET FOR ORGANIC IN PUBLIC PROCUREMENT– following the example of Denmark, where 60% of the food served in public settings is organic

SUPPORT SCHOOLS TO COMPLY WITH THE SCHOOL FOOD STANDARDS– including by supporting school governors to fulfil their statutory duty to gather evidence of compliance with legal school food standards

PROPERLY FUND FREE SCHOOL MEALS – including by raising the funding allowance in line with inflation

EXTEND THE ‘SUGAR TAX’ TO ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS– and require Public Health England to monitor and mitigate increased sweetener consumption resulting from reformulation programmes