Health schools – A focus on food

Written by: HTU | Published:

After the publication of the School Food Plan, new food standards are being introduced. Helen Frostick explains how her school ensures healthy eating and food education is an engaging experience for their pupils.

School food is high on the agenda again. Last year, announcements were made that all children aged five to seven are to qualify for the free school meals from September 2014. 

The Blair government had already brought in free fruit and vegetables for infants and Jamie Oliver of course took the issue of turkey twizzlers, childhood obesity and the potential positive messages that could be instilled in pupils via schools to the government and national recognition. 

The government has committed millions to help schools increase the up-take of free school meals and to ensure that healthy breakfasts are available for thousands of children to prevent them from starting the day hungry.

Last year, the School Food Plan was created after a review by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, co-founders of the Leon chain of restaurants, carried out at the request of the Department for Education (DfE).

As part of this work, the DfE has agreed to test and introduce a set of revised food-based standards (built on a national framework), with these to be available to maintained schools and all new academies and free schools from September 2014 (although not likely to be in regulatory force until January 2015, to allow a transition period).

The new standards have been drafted and tested and the DfE is expected to launch a consultation any time now.

At the same time, Ofsted has agreed to amend its guidance to consider behaviour and culture in the dining hall and the way a school promotes healthy lifestyles.

London’s Mayor is also providing schools with funds to encourage “grow your own” and school allotments. He has also recently written to invite schools to get involved in a new project called Food Growing Schools London, which is offering to support to every London school to use food growing to boost learning, encourage healthy and sustainable choices, and connect communities.

This project, led by Garden Organic and supported by the Big Lottery Fund, brings together organisations from across the private, public and voluntary sector to build on the great work being done by schools already committed to growing food and to kick-start food growing in those not yet involved.

Our approach

At St Mary Magdalen’s School in London, dinners, cooking and growing vegetables has always taken a high priority.

Food writer Annabel Karmel, who is currently helping the government to develop food programmes to support small schools to deliver nutritious food cost-effectively, recently visited our school to see why our school dinner experience is a positive one and what tips could be passed on to other schools. Ms Karmel met pupils and led a lively year 3 lesson on healthy eating (see images).

Moving to the dining hall she discussed with children whether they enjoyed school dinners and met the lunchtime staff and cooks who always work hard to make lunchtime an outstanding feature of the school.

The school has maintained the highest uptake of school dinners in the borough in which it is situated. Meals at the school cost £2.15 per day and parents can pay in weekly, monthly, half-termly or termly installments, using a dedicated online payment system. For packed lunches, a policy has been put in place to ensure all lunchboxes are healthy and nutritious.

The school lunch contractor, ISS, has been awarded the Silver Food for Life Catering Mark for its commitment to using locally sourced produce and the ingredients are nutritious, calorie-counted and cooked from fresh. 

ISS is confident that it will be awarded the Gold Mark for its menu in 2014. This will mean more local, more organic, higher-quality food for our children at no additional cost to parents.

Ms Karmel said: “It’s important to build on what the best schools already do, and St Mary Magdalen’s is a shining example in terms of their dedication to making healthy eating commonplace in the daily school routine. It’s vital that every headteacher takes responsibility for the food served in their school canteen. If they can offer something healthy and appealing to children, parents may then be willing to swap the money they are spending on packed lunches for school dinners.

“It is also vital for every child to understand the importance of eating well for a healthy future, which means interacting and engaging with them – that might be through a cooking competition or Food Bingo like we played in class (at St Mary Magdalen’s).”

The school dinner experience at school is positive. Children are taught good table manners and enjoy the social nature of dining with their friends. Year 6 have Reception class buddies who they accompany to lunch, helping them with good manners at the serving hatch, making their choice and will cut up their food too for them if required. This buddy scheme has helped to channel year 6’s enthusiasm to help with prefect roles and responsibilities in school.

Another successful feature of school food is the “Let’s Get Cooking” year 3 curriculum project. This was a government scheme introduced into primary schools three years ago. It helps us to further educate the pupils as to what constitutes healthy food choices through a weekly cooking lesson. 

As a school, we were passionate about taking up this opportunity because it sits so well in the Healthy Eating programme of study and also as it incorporates science and maths in a fun meaningful context.

The funding and training enable two teaching assistants at our school to teach the basic skills of cooking to year 3. The children handle knives and appliances under close supervision and produce taste-bud-tantalising dishes that they enjoy taking home to share with their families. The class is divided into two halves with half working in the classroom on cross-curricular links and half working in the hall for their cookery lesson.

The buzz of excitement on day one of this memorable experience is palpable as the children are invited to bring in and wear their own apron for the lesson. I hear their cheerful laughter and voices from my office as they move from their classroom to the hall. 

When asked about whether they enjoy their cookery lessons, Grace told me that they cooked pizza. She particularly enjoyed putting in all of the ingredients and also washing up!

William enjoyed making his banana cake as you put in the banana and then squish it with your hands. Jack enjoyed mixing the ingredients in his pizza – olives, pineapple, ham, tomatoes, mixed herb and sweet corn. He also enjoyed working with his friend Luke with whom he traded ingredients. 

Language skills are also developed – Jack told me that when they put the cheese in it spilt over the pizza and made a “yellow mountain of cheese”.

Thanks to the Mayor of London’s grants to encourage schools to have allotments, our school has a gardening club led by two year 6 pupils who are also the school’s head gardeners. 

The school has also harnessed funding from a food charity and the club members have weekly sessions potting, planting, sowing and enjoying growing the fruits of the land. 

In our congested, urban, city school setting the plot is restricted but flourishing with herbs, vegetables, flowers and shrubs. Our head gardeners, one girl, one boy, take their role very seriously. Recently they took inspiration from meeting the Blue Peter gardener.

We have to be creative in our approach to overcoming our restrictive site. An example of this can be seen in our kind donations of outgrown Wellington boots from our parents that the premises manager in turn then uses to plant geraniums in for extra colour. 

In recognition of our talent for using our space creatively to grow things we received a merit award from Richmond in Bloom, an annual local competition spanning all outdoor space in the area. We are very proud of this.

A healthy attitude to food is an attribute that sets children up for a lifetime of making good food choices. To have an understanding of how it’s grown, where it comes from and how to cook it is an investment of time in the already congested school timetable well worth the commitment.  

  • Helen Frostick is the headteacher of St Mary Magdalen’s Catholic Primary School in south London.

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