Transforming food culture in schools

I was delighted when the Soil Association-led Food for Life Partnership was recently awarded the prestigious BBC Radio 4 Derek Cooper Award. The award recognises ‘unsung heroes, whose work has increased our access to, and knowledge and appreciation of, good food’. For five years the Soil Association and its three partners in the project – Health Education Trust, Garden Organic and Focus on Food Campaign – have been working with schools and communities across England to transform their food cultures. The award is well deserved and a fitting recognition for the impact the project is having.

An evaluation of the project found that participation was beneficial to children’s health. It also helps to tackle inequalities, improve education and impacts positively on local enterprise and sustainability. The evaluation confirmed that children are eating more fruit and veg as a result of their participation and that the programme helps ‘close the gap’ in health and academic attainment between disadvantaged children and their peers.

It also revealed that schools show a significant increase in free school meal uptake which is crucial in encouraging healthy eating habits, and that twice as many primary schools receive an Outstanding Ofsted rating after working with the Food for Life Partnership. In fact, says the evaluation, over £3 in social, economic and environmental value was created for every £1 spent on Food for Life menus.

Food is used as a way to improve the whole school experience, such as making lunchtimes a positive feature of the day, enriching classroom learning with farm visits, and practical cooking and growing activities. Sheila Dillon, presenter of The Food Programme, describes the Food for Life Partnership as ‘the most important food project in Europe’. Talking about the impact of the project earlier this year she said: “For years, for decades, we’ve been looking for this golden way of changing attitudes to food. The Food for Life Partnership has changed things, it’s remarkable”.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who handed out the award, also gave high praise to the programme, saying, “The positive effect of the work is absolutely unambiguous. It’s proven academically, but more to the point it’s proven in the bright eyes and busy attitude of the kids and the fantastic commitment of their head teachers. And if you think a little bit into the future it means we’ll soon be sending kids into the world as young adults who will themselves be educating their families. If we get this right we can change the whole culture of food at a grass roots level. It couldn’t be more important and we have to see this succeed”.

Fresh food you can trust

All schools involved in the Food for Life Partnership are working towards bronze, silver or gold award menus as defined by the Food for Life Catering Mark. This mark was developed by the Soil Association to offer an independent guarantee that what’s on the menu is freshly prepared, free from undesirable additives and better for animal welfare. The groundbreaking scheme now accredits over 500,000 meals being served in the UK each day. That’s over 85 million each year and this number is increasing as more and more caterers sign up. The scheme is open to all food providers but currently the majority of those signed up are involved with school meal provision.

The bronze, silver and gold Catering Mark tiers encourage the use of more fresh, seasonal, local and organic food. At bronze, the Catering Mark’s fixed standards guarantee that all meals are free from trans-fats, undesirable additives including MSG and GM ingredients. All eggs are from cage-free hens and meat is produced to farm assurance standards. Organisations serving food to early years or school settings must also demonstrate how they meet relevant government guidelines for nutrition.

The silver and gold Catering Marks operate on a points-based system which rewards every percentage of an organisation’s total ingredient spend on ethical, environmentally-friendly, local and healthy food. To achieve silver, an organisation must spend a minimum of 5 per cent of total ingredient spend on organic products, with 15 per cent required for gold. This means that organisations using organic, higher welfare, locally produced or healthier ingredients can gain recognition for their achievements.

Farm visits
With 90 per cent of the UK’s population living in cities, we have become increasingly disconnected from the farms where our food is produced. All children involved in the Food for Life Partnership are given the opportunity to visit their nearest farm. These visits help to teach them that food does not just come from a supermarket shelf – an important lesson given that a worrying amount of the food we eat is highly processed and rarely resembles the original ingredients.

Visiting a farm, even just once, can be a life-changing experience for a young person. The Food for Life Partnership, via a dedicated Farm Links team, encourages schools and farms to set up a programme where small groups of pupils can visit the farm throughout the year. Pupils get the chance to talk with the farmer, get a closer look round the farm and begin to understand the yearly cycle of work. School picnics, a harvest festival, or a farmers’ markets are just some of the activities which help to bring larger numbers of pupils and community members to the farm to celebrate.

Farm academy
Over the coming year and a half, the Soil Association will be working with 10 schools across London (both primary and secondary) in the Farm Academy Programme, an exciting new innovation which helps teach inner city children about where their food comes from through farm visits and the establishment of school farmers markets that are organised entirely by the pupils.

Supported by funding from the City Bridge Trust and the Food for Life Partnership, the programme will support the Partnership in transforming school food culture. The aim is that Farm Academy is fully linked into the curriculum and that the children have a voice in what happens. Schools taking part also sign up to the Food for Life Partnership programme, providing a structured scheme of activity and awards scheme to monitor progress. Teamwork is a key part of the visit, with groups working together to harvest produce and prepare their dinner. Teachers have commented on how children who are sometimes disruptive or don’t perform in class have excelled in this new environment.

Last summer, Jubilee Primary and Sebright Primary in Hackney, and Poplar Primary in Merton spent four days on an organic farm, taking part in a variety of activities – from cheesemaking and hen-keeping to growing and harvesting vegetables. Back in the classroom, pupils then applied what they learned to establish a regular farmers’ market – selling their own school-grown produce as well as that from local producers.

As well as providing opportunities for pupils to learn about food and farming, the Farm Academy Programme helps support small, local producers through the school markets and provides the opportunity for members of the school and wider community to buy local, fresh and seasonal produce and meet the farmers behind the food.

Pupils are involved in running the markets from start to finish. They take responsibility for what happens and the decisions are theirs – enabling schools to communicate the importance of sustainably-produced local food and providing a context for looking at food chain issues and understanding where food comes from. The money raised all goes towards further farm visits or food education in the school.

It seems that everyone involved benefits. Pupils learn ‘on-the-job’ about farming, animal welfare, food growing and cooking; it helps provide a new market for local producers and micro- food enterprises; and it also gives the local community the opportunity to buy affordable and fresh local produce, and meet the farmers who are producing the food.

Roz Wilson, a teacher at Millfield Primary in London which is taking part in the programme, has witness first-hand the benefits of the scheme: “The scheme is really important to help London pupils realise where their food comes from. The Food for Life Partnership and our school garden have already helped pupils at our school learn more about food and food production. The Farm Academy Programme will allow us to build on this success. Through the farm visits and the running of school farmers markets, the pupils become champions for helping promote healthy eating in the wider community”.

Securing the future

In March 2012, The Soil Association-led Food for Life Partnership will come to the end of its development phase. An initial investment by the BIG Lottery Fund of £16.9million has helped develop and test delivery methods. Backed up by solid evidence that the Partnership impacts positively on children’s life chances, the partnership is now offering unique, tailored solutions for local areas and delivers real, evidence-based, impact in schools and communities across the country.

Commenting on the future of the Partnership, Sheila Dillon said, “It seems to me that if we lost what the Food for Life Partnership has achieved it would not only be a disaster for the schools and the children, it would be a disaster for the entire British society”.

The Partnership is committed to continuing this work and is keen to work with and hear from new partners, in particular to extend the programme in areas of significant disadvantage. If you would like to explore what value the Food for Life Partnership can bring to the table in your area then please get in touch.

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