Healthy food promotes a healthy mind and body, and there is nowhere this is more vital than in nurseries, schools and universities. Nourishment for young people is essential to learning – it’s proven that children who eat a balanced diet containing the right vitamins and minerals have better concentration, memory recall and capacity for knowledge.
The Soil Association’s Food for Life Catering Mark works extensively in schools, nurseries and universities (as well as in other public settings, such as hospitals and care homes). It brings healthy, sustainable and locally sourced food to those who need it most, and those who don’t always get to choose for themselves what they eat.
The Food for Life Catering Mark initiative was created around six years ago to tackle unhealthy food in public places. Catering Mark meals are now served in over 25 per cent of English schools and in 20 per cent of universities, as well as in over 300 nurseries. The Catering Mark is an independent endorsement that proves caterers are taking steps to improve their food, by meeting standards on nutrition, freshness, sustainability and animal welfare.
Caterers are assessed according to a set of standards which take into account everything from the sourcing of food and assurance schemes such as Red Tractor approved meat and MSC fish, to the preparation of meals and menu planning. Through a bronze, silver and gold framework, caterers are encouraged to move towards serving more sustainable, nutritious and organic food.
School Catering Schools, once the breeding ground of turkey twizzlers, are transforming food service. Nurseries are leading the trend for independent accreditation, with many private establishments upping their game with the Catering Mark assurance, and universities are quickly bringing a new playing field for food offers on campus.
The Catering Mark bronze standard requires 75 per cent of dishes to be freshly cooked, with no undesirable additives or trans fats and seasonal food is encouraged. Through a comprehensive framework businesses are guided through small steps in sourcing, cooking and planning, to achieve a Catering Mark and make a big difference to food, the environment and animal welfare. The bronze, silver and gold structure of the Catering Mark allows progression as caterers become more confident, find better ingredients, and use more local and more organic food.
At a time where the number of parents visiting food banks across the country and the incidence of childhood obesity is rising, those who decide on and prepare the food eaten outside of the home have a responsibility towards the nourishment of children in their care.
In Reception, one in five children is overweight or obese (boys at 23.2 per cent, and girls at 21.2 per cent) and in Year 6, every third child is overweight or obese (boys at 34.8 per cent, and girls at 31.8 per cent). Overweight five‑year-olds are four times as likely to become obese later in life, compared with children who are a healthy weight at this age.
Analysing the cost Good food doesn’t have to cost more. Historically, catering managers made their buying decisions based on keeping ingredient price low. It is assumed that better quality food is more expensive but with the right training staff can make the most of cooking skills and an understanding of seasonal food or different cuts of meat, can help make a nutritious meal that’s still within budget.
It’s not just schools who are seeing the benefit of the Food for Life Catering Mark, school food standards set by the Department of Education now encourage the use of ‘fresh, local, sustainably sourced food’ – and the Catering Mark has been recognised as a way to help caterers demonstrate that these standards are being met.
The Catering Mark has also been cited in the government’s Plan for Public Procurement, which addresses wider aspects of quality within food and catering – such as ethical, environmental and social considerations. Based on the Government Buying Standards for food and nutrition, the Plan seeks to achieve consistent standards for all food procured by Central Government departments, as well as providing best practice recommendations for food providers and procurers. Catering Mark holders are recognised within the Plan as being well-placed to score good or excellent against the Plan’s ‘Balanced Scorecard’ criteria.
Many celebrities have endorsed the scheme too; Jamie Oliver recently said: “Massive credit to all the caterers and suppliers who are already working hard every day to serve up great quality, delicious, nutritious food...Whether it’s in a hospital, school, factory canteen or office café, here’s to the next million!”
A demand for sustainability The scheme has an effect on the wider community too. For every £1 spent on Catering Mark menus, £3 is put back, for example through local employment. The Catering Mark also provides a significant boost to the British farming industry, with over £40 million spent on British ingredients each year.
Figures show the growing demand for healthier, sustainable food in the UK food sector – the annual wholesale value of MSC certified fish sold into the Catering Mark supply each year is nearly £4 million. Collectively, Catering Mark holders annually spend over £7 million on organic ingredients, nearly £4 million on free range and Freedom Food-certified meat and over £1.2 million on LEAF marque certified products . To link caterers with suitable suppliers for their Catering Mark meals the Soil Association has also now developed the Supplier Scheme, helping caterers find suitable ingredients but also finding new routes to market for suppliers and food producers.
The Food for Life Catering Mark has just reached 1.5 million meals served daily across the UK, a huge accolade in not much time. 850,000 of these meals are served in schools where good food can really make a difference.
Awarding Catering Excellence Recently the Soil Association celebrated the new Food for Life Catering Mark Champions, at a national awards ceremony in June. It is the individuals who are at the heart of instigating change and unlocking the key to a successful future, for school children, caterers and the wider community. The Catering Mark Awards focused on the hard work and innovation of the individuals who are championing the Catering Mark every day, showing the personal achievement of people working to improve food in their school, hospital or workplace.
Six Champions were picked from a shortlist across each sector. Nominations came from all food providers who hold a Catering Mark, and showed the journey these people had taken to achieve their Catering Mark and improve their food service.
The winner for the schools category was Sarah Henderson, PA to directors & Food for Life Coordinator, ISS Facility Services in Education. Sarah has a pioneering role across the UK, working closely with the ISS Food Development Team, Senior Management Team, their central Procurement Team, suppliers, cooks and schools catered for by the company. She ensures that every school menu catered for by the ISS team is Catering Mark standard and that every pupil gets the quality of food they need.
Mark Davies, Director of Education at ISS said: “The Catering Mark offers us a real point of difference that independently shows that we have planned and prepared meals that are healthy, fresh, well sourced and local. Having the Catering Mark is a great accolade for us across ISS and we intend to continue to add more schools and hospitals as it is good for our customers, good for our suppliers and good for business.”
The winner for Early Years was Raquel Kneeves, Nursery chef, Snapdragons (in Keynsham). Raquel has a talent for creating new and interesting menus with a much wider range of foods than would normally be seen on a nursery menu, understanding that children will try new tastes and textures if they encounter them early. She has organised trips for the children at Snapdragons and is helping forge links with a local college to encourage students to consider a career in catering for early years.
Higher Education, Higher standards The winner for Universities was Mark Davidson, Food Production Manager, Sodexo, Southampton Solent University. Mark has marched through each level of the Catering Mark with the university, from bronze to gold, which now serves 200 Catering Mark meals daily. Understanding the difference good food can make, he now spends his time travelling the country sharing expertise and supporting other organisations.
Rich Watts, Senior Catering Mark Manager for the Soil Association said: “It takes dedication and real commitment to start making real and impactful changes to the way you do things, from thinking about sourcing to menu planning, to staffing, preparation and training. The Catering Mark has already had a huge impact on school food across the country but it is essential that we build momentum with school food and reach for the next two million meals. Do your bit and find out more today!”
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