School meals in County Durham schools have been branded “absolutely shocking”, amid concern that children’s health and education is being impacted.

Parents and politicians have raised alarm at children coming home from school hungry due to the quality and price of food available. 

A council’s contract with meal provider Chartwells has also been called into question in a bid to improve standards in the region’s schools. 

Rhonda Wright is one of many parents concerned about what is being served up at lunchtimes. “My daughter comes home famished everyday,” she said, suggesting that the rising costs haven’t always meant improved quality. 

She added: “I pay approximately 80 to 100 quid a month on her app for meals and the food is pathetic not to mention the prices. I check her app regularly to see what she is eating and a cookie is £1.35! What happened to the old-style dinner pudding and drink with one set price like when I was at school?”

For Dawn Teasdale, today’s school meals system has worsened compared to what was previously provided. She explained: “[I] can’t believe they got rid of the school dinner ladies making proper home-cooked dinners like we used to have as kids.

“The stuff they get now is not nutritious at all and they don’t get fresh veg. It's £2.50, I’d rather pay twice as much and get them a healthy filling meal.”

Similar anecdotes from other parents are often the topic of conversation at the school gates and online. The rising costs mean some children are often priced out of full meals by lunchtime after spending a part of their daily allowance during the morning break time. 

Cooks at Tanfield School, Stanley, keep a certain amount of food to one side “so no kids go hungry at lunchtime”, cllr Joyce Charlton said, “but not all schools do that.”

Cllr Carl Marshall, leader of County Durham Labour, warned the system is spiralling out of control due to high costs and budget pressures. 

“The quality of school meals in County Durham is absolutely shocking: the feedback, quality of the provision, and size of the meals,” he told a Durham County Council scrutiny meeting. “Kids are coming home hungry on an evening.”

The Stanley councillor suggested the council should look at its contract with Chartwells, the current provider of school meals in some County Durham primary schools.

He added: “The costs have gone up again. This is hitting parents of children who aren't on free school meals but are clearly struggling to make ends meet. Something needs to be done to look at the cost and quality of school meals provision. 

“Not only is it a cost for parents but it’s also an issue for schools. Some of those costs have been pushed onto local governing bodies and primary schools at a time of a decade of funding cuts from the national government and are struggling to provide the breadth and depth of education that people in County Durham need.”

The system adopted at Brandon Primary Academy could be replicated across the region due to its success, said cllr Jonathan Elmer, a governor at the school. 

The Northern Echo: School meals at Brandon Primary Academy have been praisedSchool meals at Brandon Primary Academy have been praised (Image: Google)

He explained: “Once the kids arrive at school there is a menu selection that they do and decide what to have on that day. It really helps because it reduces the issue of food waste, and the kids are more likely to eat the food they have selected. The old system, that most schools operated, saw the menu chosen at the start of term. This system increases the likelihood of kids getting a decent meal.” 

Chartwells is currently in charge of school meals at the primary school. 

Cllr Elmer added: “At Brandon, they are really pleased with the quality of food provided. I know it’s a big issue and some of the private companies have been extremely poor but it’s not the case in this school.  I support the calls to look into why there are varying performances across the county.” 

Cllr Rob Crute said there is a correlation between the quality of food and educational attainment in schools but warned of the concerning number of hot food takeaways just yards from school gates across County Durham. 

Chartwells admitted inflation has impacted food and labour costs, meaning parents are being asked to pay more. 

A spokesman said: “Our teams are passionate about providing high quality, nutritious meals for the pupils that we serve. We always work hard to provide value for money and we do all that we can to mitigate the impact of inflation. However, as a result of the ongoing inflation being experienced in relation to food and labour costs, in agreement with Durham County Council Primary School Meals Board, the school meal price has recently increased.

“Quality control measures, of the school meals provision, are in place through a monitoring programme carried out by the council. 

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 Jim Murray, Durham County Council’s head of education and skills, said: “We know how important it is for children to have fresh, tasty, and nutritious food at school.

“Due to ongoing impacts of inflation, the Primary Schools Board, made up of school leaders across County Durham, agreed to slightly increase the price of primary school meals to reflect the rise in supplier costs. However, fees remain in line with average school meal prices across the UK.

“We continue to provide free school meals for eligible pupils and would encourage parents and guardians to check their eligibility so that they don’t miss out on their entitlement.”