Less meat in the school week

With the Department for Education currently reviewing its School Food Standards, the Soil Association is calling for a compulsory  meat-free day with meals based around beans and pulses

The Department for Education (DfE) is reviewing its School Food Standards. Food for Life is urging the government to make a meat-free day with meals based around plant-based proteins, such as beans and pulses, compulsory each week.
‘Real food for everyone, every day’. This is Food for Life’s mission. The charity’s pioneering ‘whole setting approach’ encourages schools to embed healthy food culture into the curriculum and beyond. But what is real food, and how can we make sure everyone has access to it? And what does this have to do with switching out meat for a plant-based alternative for one meal a week? It’s worth noting that when we talk about plant-based proteins, we mean nutritious and sustainable alternatives to meat, such as lentils and pulses.
In 2019, we have arrived at a crossroads. We have kids who have lost touch with what real food is. We have UK families eating enormous amounts of ultra-processed food, making us the most obese country in Western Europe. Our kids are becoming more and more obese faster than you can say ‘pizza and baked beans’ - which, incidentally, is where 17 per cent of the veg in children’s diets come from.

Climate issues

Meanwhile, the impacts of climate change are being felt across the globe. And if we want to begin to halt climate change then we must reduce our meat consumption. Recent reports from EAT-Lancet and UK Climate Change Committee highlight the need for widespread dietary change. This includes a shift to eating less ultra-processed and poor-quality meat and replacing this with higher quality, more sustainably produced fresh meat combined with plant-based options.
By promoting a healthier relationship with food, the ‘less but better’ approach allows caterers to ‘trade up’, switching cheaper meats for better quality higher-welfare meat and serving more affordable beans and pulses on plant-based days. The two go hand in hand.  
Steve Cross, head chef at Food for Life-Gold awarded Park Community School, is already serving excellent plant-based options with great success. This school is living proof of what can be done to embed food culture into the school day. The menu often includes up to two meat-free days per week. This less but better approach is enjoyable for the kids and means they know exactly what it is they are eating and where it comes from. And kids are more likely to eat different foods if they’ve watched them grow.
Steve Cross, head chef at Park Community School, said: “We know that we all need to eat less meat if we are going to face climate change – and that is going to need to start in schools so I think we do need a meat free day. Pulses like lentils and chick peas are very cheap and you can get a lot out of them, and using more of these ingredients plus fruit and vegetables we can afford higher quality meat the rest of the time. It’s about being clever with your ingredients and cooking to get the most out of a variety of healthy ingredients. We live by the field to fork approach – we want the children to have a good understanding of where their food comes and educate them into eating things that are healthier and more sustainable.”

Less and better

Clearly, Park Community School are going above and beyond. But there are small changes that caterers can make to lead the way in sustainable food that has a positive impact on kids’ health and well-being as well as the planet. This is demonstrated by the thousands of schools working within the Food for Life Served Here scheme across the UK who are already implementing meat-free days, and using the cost saving opt for local and higher welfare meat for the rest of the week.     
This is ‘less and better’ working as it should.
Currently the School Food Standards only include a non-mandatory recommendation to include a weekly meat-free day. Few schools are putting it into action and, when it does take place, choices are often restricted to less healthy options like cheesy pasta or pizza rather than a truly plant-based option rich in fibre. To be clear, plant-based is not synonymous with vegan. We are asking for climate-friendly options rather than ultra-processed choices.

Sustainable meals

The UK Climate Change Committee has called for a 20 per cent reduction in meat consumption, while the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has warned that we have only 10 years to change our diets. Schools need more support and instruction to deliver sustainable meals. As part of the review, the DfE is set to consider recommendations that children should eat more beans and pulses to bring the standards in line with the latest evidence on too little fibre in our diets.
Food for Life is calling for this to be accepted and a mandatory plant-based protein day each week implemented. This will support more climate-friendly menus and help to tackle poor diets and obesity by increasing fibre intake.
Rob Percival, Head of Policy for Food & Health at the Soil Association, said: “The updated School Food Standards should require that all schools serve a plant-based protein day each week. The current, non-compulsory advice for a meat-free day is too weak. We know children would benefit nutritionally from eating more beans, pulses, and plant-based proteins and the climate would also benefit – we should all be eating less meat, but of a better quality.
Leading Food for Life schools are already showing that it is possible to serve children healthy plant-based meals, with the cost saving used to ‘trade-up’ to higher-welfare and more sustainable meat for the rest of the week. It’s time the government caught up.”
As adults, we often forget that children are wise to the issues affecting the world around them. Recent events like extinction rebellion, led by teenager Greta Thunberg, show us that youngsters are concerned for their natural environment and climate change. We must support our kids to make more sustainable dietary choices and make it easy for them to choose. It’s not about going vegan or dietary fads, but about providing kids with nutritious, sustainable food that’s good for them. Food for Life want to make good food the easy choice for everyone. A mandatory plant-based protein day can help to make this a reality.