An open letter to Henry Dimbleby, author of the School Food Plan

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FROM September, the Government is to fund free school meals for every infant and primary school child in England. The groundbreaking policy is the brainchild of Henry Dimbleby, founder of the food chain Leon and author of the compelling School Food Plan.

There are excellent reasons for this, many of which are outlined here. But for parents of young children with food allergies, the policy has yet to prove itself.

There have been a few brief kerfuffles on Twitter over exactly how catering for allergies fits into the plan. To his immense credit, Dimbleby has responded to many of these questions personally and asked me and other ‘allergy parents’ to email him with our concerns. So here’s the letter that I sent to him:

Dear Henry

My name is Alexa Baracaia and I tweet under the ‘Allergy Mum UK’ alter ego ‘@foodallergyuk’. You and I have had a few to-ings and fro-ings about the free school meals plan and some time ago you suggested I should email you.

I’m sorry it has taken me so long, but I would very much appreciate the chance to put the ‘allergy parent’ point across and to understand exactly what measures you anticipate being put into place once the programme is rolled out nationwide.

I want to start by saying I think it’s a great idea in principle and I fully support it. I also understand that there were good examples of allergy catering among the pilot schools.

However, I know of at least one London borough that has already signed up to the free meals plan that is NOT catering properly for allergies. Many schools are refusing to cater meals for children with multiple allergies. Instead they are insisting on packed lunches for those children.

It is also not yet clear to me what detailed systems will be put in place to support and impel all participating schools come September to provide meals for allergic children.

The main issues are:

1. To be truly universal the system must cater for ALL, and have proper systems in place to ensure that children with allergies (most of whom have more than one) are receiving adequate meals

2. The option for schools to impose a packed lunch ban if they so wish is extremely problematic in the context of food allergies: are children with allergies to be made to feel excluded by being the only ones at school with packed lunches? The School Food Plan emphasises that there be no “segregation” and there should be a “whole school approach”. How does this apply to allergic kids?

3. Catering for allergies does not mean simply providing a ‘gluten free’ option, or a ‘dairy free’ option. The statistics show that 7 in 100 children have a food allergy and at least 50 per cent of those have multiple food allergies. Very often you will find a child like my own who is allergic to eggs, nuts, sesame, legumes – and even perhaps to wheat and dairy as well. This is not as uncommon as you might think. And it is on the increase. So proper allergy provision must take into account those many and growing numbers of children with several allergies to contend with.

I understand that you have given verbal assurances that allergies will be catered for but, as I have said, in practice even schools in boroughs who have already adopted the programme are NOT providing food for allergic children.

It is a scary prospect for a school cook to be confronted for the first time with a child who has life threatening allergies. I completely understand that. I was petrified myself when our three-year-old was first diagnosed, as were my friends and family.

But with the proper processes in place and some very clear and specific guidance on cross contamination – perhaps even some ideas for multiple allergy friendly meals – it IS possible.

What worries a great many of us ‘food allergy parents’ is that we have yet to see any such clear-cut and explicit guidance for schools on this issue.

The guidance document for school heads and the ‘checklist for head teachers’ on the http://www.schoolfoodplan.com website make no mention of allergy provision. In fact, the former allows an opt-out by stating: “Because of food allergies, absences, religious beliefs and those who will insist on carrying on with packed lunches, take up usually hovers between 85% and 90%.”

There is in fact NO mention whatsoever of the words ‘allergy’ or ‘allergies’ that I can find in the School Food Plan document itself.

Also, while sensible nutritionally, it is highly problematic with regards to allergies that there is the explicit statement that “nuts and seeds” should be provided as snacks.

I would be so grateful to hear exactly what is being put in place to ensure that:

1. School cooks are being fully guided and supported in providing allergy friendly meals. This means that they must have access to proper training on cross contamination, how to source allergy safe ingredients (which includes NOT using foods that ‘may contain traces’ of common allergens) and understanding the implications of food allergy for the sufferer

2. Allergic children are not being made to feel excluded from their peers

3. Parents of allergic children are not having to foot the bill for a programme that is supposed to have universality at its heart (unless, of course, they feel strongly that they would rather cater themselves; another reason why the the option for a packed lunch ban is highly problematic)

It is stating the obvious, of course, but there will be a great many parents struggling financially who have children with multiple allergies and who might otherwise qualify for free school meals under a non-universal system. With many schools refusing to cater where does that leave them?

Huge thanks for your time and I look forward to hearing from you

Alexa Baracaia

I’m happy to say I have had a swift response from Henry Dimbleby. While he didn’t directly address the points above and was at pains to point out that he and the ‘School Food Plan’ team are not actually in charge of universal free school meals implementation, thus have no direct power, he has offered to run some of their upcoming guidance material past me “to ensure that it addresses the concerns of parents whose children are afflicted with allergies”.

He claims that the pilot scheme in Durham successfully catered for food allergic pupils. So, the jury is out, but all is not yet lost. At least we are being listened to. Perhaps the next step for we allergy parents is to target the government team in charge of the universal meals policy? 

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Since I posted this, the Q&A guidance for head teachers has been updated to include some brief reference to allergies. See here. However there is STILL no explicit or detailed policy or training guidance available for schools, and with the implementation of free meals looming later this year it is becoming worryingly late to tackle the very many and very widespread concerns. 
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One Response to An open letter to Henry Dimbleby, author of the School Food Plan

  1. The Free From Fairy says:

    It has been a while since I have visited your site but every time I do I am impressed. Your email to henry was far more comprehensive than mine to him a few months ago…but basically dealt with the same issues. I have written a couple of pieces on my blog about free school meals and still see no real way fwd. I am still trying to work with the catering company who have the contract for our school but still not getting anywhere. Having said that, I saw their menu last week and found it hard to believe it could be considered healthy. There are big challenges ahead for us ‘allergy’ parents…we need to stick together! Keep up the great work…

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