It is becoming “increasingly difficult” for schools to provide hot and nutritious meals to pupils as food companies grapple with soaring inflation and supply chain issues, an industry body has warned.
The vast majority of school caterers are experiencing shortages or items being substituted, according to a new survey of providers.
More than three quarters polled said they had been forced to change menus or reduce options due to problems with supply chains.
Around 10 per cent have had to compromise food standards due to rocketing inflation, according to the poll run by LACA, the school catering industry body.
One respondent said it was still able to meet food standards but was getting more backlash from schools wanting “higher plate coverage” or unhappy with menu changes.
The Independent has heard from parents and headteachers who reported pupils being given less to eat at school as food costs soar - including one child left with just sweetcorn one lunch.
One mother, who wished to remain anonymous to avoid impacting her children, told The Independent her family had experienced food running out at school and less being offered since just before Christmas.
“Both my children regularly come home saying that food choices are not available because the food has run out, items are missing from meal deals or they have only had half a portion to make sure everyone gets something,” she said.
The parent from North Lincolnshire added: “The kids snack as soon as they get home because they are still hungry.”
LACA surveyed 170 members in May about their school food provision for a report published on Monday.
It found 90 per cent were experiencing shortages or substitutions from their supply chain, with chicken, bread and oil the most frequently mentioned items.
Around two thirds reported shortages of ambient groceries - which includes pasta and tinned goods - while over half said frozen groceries were an issue.
Most respondents said the situation over shortages and substitutions had worsened since the start of the year.
“These findings should act as an urgent wake-up call. Many school caterers are at breaking point,” Jacquie Blake from LACA said.
“Without adequate funding for school meals the most vulnerable children will miss out on what in some cases is their only hot meal of the day.”
The chair of the school food industry body added: “Caterers strive to provide hot and nutritious school meals, but this is becoming increasingly difficult and is likely to only get worse in the coming months.”
More than half of those surveyed warned if the situation did not improve, school food quality would deteriorate.
Ms Blake said the cost of living crisis meant it was “more urgent than ever” to make sure children received a healthy school lunch.
“This can only be achieved through sufficient support for the sector and we are calling on the government to act now to ensure that schools are able to continue feeding children,” Ms Blake added.
Geoff Barton from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) told The Independent: “It is not surprising that school caterers are having to make decisions over menu choices given the cost-of-living crisis, and it is particularly worrying to hear of warnings that the quality of meals is under threat.”
Some headteachers have said they were desperately trying not to allow rising food costs to affect the quality or quantity of school meals offered but that this was stretching their budgets in other areas.
One school leader told The Independent earlier this month he had spoken to his catering team after noticing children were getting less food on their plates.
Ministers have been urged to raise the amount of money spent on children’s school meals amid concerns.
Mr Barton from ASCL union echoed these calls: “The government funding allocation for free school meals is very low and it is increasingly clear that this needs to be urgently reviewed in light of rising costs.”
Following the publication of the LACA report, children and families minister Will Quince said he recognised schools were “not immune” to the cost of living crisis but they were responsible for managing their own budgets.
He said an extra £7bn provided to schools over the course of the spending review period would help to ease pressures and mentioned a boost in universal free infant school meal funding - which has been criticised for not keeping pace with soaring inflation.
A government spokesperson said schools were “responsible for providing nutritious school meals” and use core funding - increasing by £4bn in the next academic year - to agree contracts to ensure this.
“Schools also have flexibility in the food they offer, under the School Food Standards. If a particular product is not readily available for any reason, the standards give schools and caterers the freedom to substitute in similar foods that are available,” they added.
“This government has also expanded access to free school meals more than any other in recent decades, and we are providing over £37 billion to help families with rising costs, targeted towards those most in need.”