Paying twice for packed lunch in Spain

A troubling development in school lunches emerged in Spain this week. The government has announced that schools could begin to charge parents who choose to send their children to school with a packed lunch when the new term begins.

The story was widely reported across the globe but was initially picked up by The Telegraph.

Counting the packed lunch pennies

The charge to be levied against parents amounts to €3 (£2.36) a day and is deemed to be for the cost associated with children using the dining room and associated supervision.

In Spain school children have a long two hour lunch break and it has been usual for them to eat a hot lunch in the canteen. Parents pay a monthly fee of about €4.50 per day (£3.50). Schools make a profit from the lunches and the extra is used to fund things not covered by their education budgets.

Grants have been available to assist low income families with school meals, but Spain has been caught up in the Euro economic crisis and austerity measures imposed by the government have forced regional education boards to make cuts.

With unemployment rising to 25%, many families had begun to look to save money by sending their children to school with a packed lunch. The new charge will largely negate any savings they might have made, but school councils have argued that the fee is necessary to pay their catering contractors for canteen equipment and staff providing supervision.

Parents have reacted angrily and the situation has not been helped by regional differences in the charge. In the Catalonia region parents will be asked to pay up to €3, but in Valencia the fee will be no more than €1.45 per day.

Meanwhile Spanish finance minister for Madrid, Percival Manglano, announced on Tuesday that it would be up to individual school boards to decide what – and whether – they will charge.

In the Madrid region €26 million have been cut from grants for school meals and text books in the new school year, so it’s easy to see why parents have begun to choose packed lunches.

Parent groups have pointed out that the charges will affect the worst off in society, and have even warned that it may lead to some children having to skip the meal completely. President of the Catholic Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, Luis Carbonel was quoted saying, “It seems excessive to charge to fill the dining room or for use of a microwave. It may mean that those hardest up might choose instead to feed their children big breakfasts to see them through to the evening meal at home.” Meanwhile Jesus Maria Sanchez, president of the Spanish Confederation of Associations of Parents called the charge “barbaric”.

I wonder what schools caterers in the UK make of this development? They have battled through tough times in recent years when meal uptakes dropped right off following the initial school food changes seven years ago. I wonder if any of them ever considered charging kids who brought a packed lunch?

Currently free school meals offer caterers a degree of cushioning from hardship. If you’re providing meals in an area where few can afford them, a good take up of free school meals and the pupil premium that comes with it can help caterers to stay afloat.

But the massive shake up of the benefits system that’s due in 2013 in the UK when Universal Credit replaces all the current benefits, has the potential to create a big impact on schools caterers. A working party has been looking at ways to incorporate free school meals into the new system without seeing families lose out, but has struggled to find a solution that avoids the ‘cliff edge’ that Universal Credit hopes to eliminate.

An obvious solution is to take free school meals out of the benefits system and instead give it to local councils who already determine Council Tax benefits for low income families, and also control the budget to local schools, but in the long term, could this lead to the very situation we’re now seeing in Spain should the recession continue?

Once again school meals proves to be a difficult and potentially thorny political issue that is far less black and white than simply ensuring kids are well fed at school. It would be interesting to hear what caterers think about this situation.

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