What’s on your plate?

With a proposed sugar tax on soft drink makers, a new-look EatWell plate to help us all eat a better diet, and a childhood obesity strategy on the way, it seems steps to help children eat better are never far from the front pages. So what more can schools do to create healthy habits for a lifetime? Linda Cregan from the Children’s Food Trust gives her tips.

As the most recent statistics on childhood obesity were released – which, incidentally, showed that around one in five children is overweight or obese as they start school, rising to around a third of children by the end of primary school – we launched a white paper setting out what we want to see in the forthcoming national child obesity strategy.

In there, we had a whole section on why schools must be at the very heart of the strategy – and why they need the right support to help every child eat well. Apart from home, no other institution has such intensive contact with children during their first two decades.

Children eat at least one, and sometimes two or more meals per day there. For some pupils, a school lunch is the main meal of the day, providing a critical nutritional safety net. And what children learn about food and eating at school, they transmit home: children can influence their parents’ behaviour and environment, reinforcing those healthier messages in their life away from school. So we have to tap into that influence, and give all schools every chance to help children to learn the habits they’ll need to be far healthier adults than we are.

A positive experience
Fundamentally, we want mealtimes at school to be a great experience – an aim that I know school caterers share. School food is not just about what’s on the plate: schools continue to need support, access to finance and time to improve the wider experience of food for pupils. That means giving children the time they need to eat; a dining space which appeals to and inspires them; and the input they should have to design their school meal service, as its customers.

But of course, that doesn’t come easy – I spent many years working in school catering, so I know how tough it can be to create the school food service and the food culture you want to have. So many business managers tell me they’ve got concerns about parts of their service – some of you are struggling with management or financial planning and controls for your catering. Others are finding it hard to get underneath the real costs involved for your school to ‘do’ school food better (not always as much as you might expect if you think outside the box). Some of you are trying to reduce the amount of food and energy being wasted in your kitchen and dining room, and others know procurement processes could be much better. Meanwhile others are still having sleepless nights about the finer details of your contract with your caterer.

Getting it right
But there are so many ways in which investing time to get your school food right will make your life easier. Your school will be getting more income – make the experience better for the kids, and more of them will want to eat with you. It’s a great advert for your school:  parents talk, so make sure they’re talking about how great your food is. You’ll feel more in control of the financials, you’ll have less admin time spent on school meals and your school will be more efficient, with less food and fuel going to waste. You’ll feel confident to pass control of budgets and quality to your kitchen team. Your lunchtime will be more organised; less supervision in the dining room means more time for other things. Your teachers will be teaching more focused pupils in the afternoon. Plus, if more children want to use your dining room, you’ll cut the amount of litter from packed lunches.

Does your catering need attention?
So how do you know when it’s time to look at your catering service more closely? It could be because the number of pupils opting to use your canteen is falling or because takings drop. 

Perhaps the number of children taking up their free school meals at your school is declining, or the costs of your service are going up. Perhaps you are getting complaints. Or maybe you have noticed more children bringing a packed lunch or buying food en route to school to keep for lunchtime.

Reviewing your school food service – whether it’s a local‑authority‑wide contract serving lots and lots of schools, your own individual contract with a private caterer or a service you’re running in-house – is your chance to think big and go shopping. It’s your blank piece of paper to sketch out what you want your school food service to deliver – not just the practical elements (though they’re important), but also how you’ll want it to fit with the ethos of your school, the environment in which you want your students to eat, and how your work on good food can help the wider community too. For example, you might want to open your kitchens for community training or cooking clubs, or champion the example of good school food to promote better choices by the whole family. What do you want to do differently? What should stay the same? Is there anything new you want to try?

Meeting standards
The recommendations we made for schools in our white paper show just how much schools can contribute to children’s nutrition: we want to see all schools, without exception, meeting national standards for school food. We want to see the free meals for all infants scheme being used to measure the impact of universal school food for children’s public health.

Giving schools the time, incentive, finance and support to continue improving school meals, including ongoing investment in better kitchens and dining rooms, is crucial. And we need to ensure that our free school meals system supports children living in poverty all year round: given that our poorest children are statistically most likely to be obese, we need to use every possible route to help them eat well, even when school’s out. Plans to extend holiday childcare options, and requests to schools to help provide this, open up many opportunities here if the right funding is available.

It’s often said of project management that if you invest the time to come up with a really clear brief, you’ll reap the rewards in the delivery. That’s why reviewing your catering service and your vision for food at your school, and coming up with a strong specification, is so important. It’s easy to get hung up on things that you’ve always done (or always wanted to do). But get talking to parents and children; give yourself some head-space to get creative; try to erase what you already know and design the service you’d want if you could wave a magic wand. If you don’t ask, you won’t get.

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