The School Food Plan must not become a document which just sits on a shelf. With that in mind, how do we keep up the momentum of healthy school food? Linda Cregan, chief executive of the Children’s Food Trust, investigates
Providing good, healthy food that children want to eat has always been a challenge for some schools. With food and labour prices going up, things are getting tougher, budgets are getting tighter, and schools are having to be even smarter when it comes to making dinner time a success. But it can be argued that it’s now more than ever that our young people need this vital resource.
Today, more than a fifth of children are either overweight or obese by the time they join reception class, rising to a third in Year 6.
During the school years, we learn many of the habits we will take with us through life. We look to our peers and our teachers to help form our ideas and behaviours – our likes and dislikes. Schools, and the communities they create, have more contact with children during their first two decades in life than any other public institution.
This is why it’s so vital that schools have the support they need to provide healthy, desirable food in their dining halls, and to adopt a culture where healthy lifestyles are promoted, explored and practiced everywhere else.
And they do – school’s across the UK are doing a fantastic job.
KEEPING UP MOMENTUM
But it’s crucial that we continue to build upon this good work. A key phrase in the government’s childhood obesity plan is that ‘many school canteens are unrecognisable from those 20-30 years ago.
Many, but by no means all. Despite the success of the School Food Plan, schools continue to need ongoing support, access to finance and time to improve the whole experience of food for children in school, and create an environment that enables healthy habits.
Schools cannot do this alone. At the Trust we have a whole range of resources to support schools online. From example seasonal menus and recipes to specific advice for schools catering to less than 100 pupils.
Our excellence award, which was highlighted in the government-commissioned School Food Plan as a way to build the reputation and take-up of school food, is a great way for schools to show off their commitment to children’s nutrition to parents.
For external school caterers, we also have our menu checking service.
SCHOOL FOOD PLAN
The School Food Plan was a shot in the arm to remind politicians, local authorities, schools and others that the job of giving every child a great lunchtime at school is far from finished.
There’s much more to do to make great school food the norm for every child – and that means it must remain a priority for government, and schools must continue to get the support they need on this.
The School Food Plan mustn’t become a document which just sits on a shelf.
With that in mind, how do we keep up the momentum? Each school community has its own unique needs and there is no one size fits all solution, but we believe there are four steps that could get us closer towards healthy school food being accessible for all children, regardless of their backgrounds.
MEETING NATIONAL STANDARDS
Firstly, we need to level the playing field for school food. All schools, without exception, should be required to meet national standards. The loophole that allows a particular group of academies (those formed between June 2010 and September 2014) to not have to comply is a nonsense.
That’s more than 3,800 schools in which food remains technically unregulated.
Even though these schools are being encouraged to support the standards voluntarily, the majority haven’t made their position clear and there’s no requirement for them to do so. There shouldn’t be one rule on for some schools and another rule for the rest – every child has the same right to healthy food at school.
The second point is to make sure all schools have a packed lunch policy. Research consistently shows that many packed lunches still contain chocolate, crisps and sweets, so anything which helps make lunchboxes healthier is a good thing. Families often choose packed lunches as simple reassurance that their children will eat something during the school day.
Fussy eating is a huge worry for so many mums and dads. But when it is foods high in sugar, salt and fat that kids are asking for in their lunchboxes, we’ve got a problem – they’re filling up on empty calories which won’t leave kids feeling at their best. Putting a packed lunch policy in place can be tough, but every school allowing packed lunches needs one if we’re going make life easier for parents and give kids a consistent message.
The third step is to ensure continued investment: give schools the time, incentive, finance and support to continue improving school meals. The Capital fund of £415 million to improve health and wellbeing in schools would help in the push for kitchens and dining rooms being good spaces that encourage the cooking and eating of healthy food.
And finally, there must be incentives. We should celebrate schools and caterers providing excellent food, through schemes such as our own, and from within the industry.
The government’s healthy rating scheme, highlighted in the child obesity plan, could be a route to this.
We know that when children eat better, they do better, so it’s in the best interests of schools and the government to be prioritising good school food as we attempt to tackle the growing problem of childhood obesity in our country.
With the right support, schools can make a monumental impact when it comes to addressing the growing health crisis which represents a ticking time bomb for this and future generations. L
Linda Cregan is the chief executive of the Children’s Food Trust, co‑chair of the School Food Alliance and an advisor to government.