A tipping point: Where now for school food?

Written by: Jeanette Orrey | Published:

The latest state of the nation report digs into the reality of what children are eating at school – with results that should prompt urgent action from the government. Jeanette Orrey explains

It is 20 years since I and the headteacher at the small village school we worked at decided to opt out of the meals service we had at the time because we thought the children deserved a better food experience.

The idea was simple – we wanted to see if we could turn school meals into a whole school approach, with everything cooked from scratch on site, and everyone within the school and wider community having a role in the food and education the children received.

Today, this might not seem like a huge step, but at the time it was a revolutionary change that led to the creation of the Food for Life campaign in 2003 and helped to reshape school meals across the UK.

Today, Food for Life aims to bring schools, nurseries, hospitals and care homes, and their surrounding communities, together around the core ethos of healthy, tasty and sustainable food. It is run by the Soil Association, a charity campaigning for healthy, humane and sustainable food, farming and land use.

The ethos of Food for Life has always been that everyone has a voice that should be heard. It is about serving the best food possible on very tight budgets, but it is also about showing kids where their food comes from, how to grow, how to cook and how to make the school lunch a social occasion.

As a former school dinner lady myself, I have nothing but admiration for the school catering teams across the country. Unless you have worked in a school kitchen it is hard to understand the challenges they face.

Caterers will routinely serve up to 2,500 meals in the space of a school lunch hour, with absolutely no space to fall behind or delay service. When lunch is served at 12pm, it means 12, not 10-past or 10-to.

Making a budget of 80p to 90p per-pupil stretch to a two-course meal is nothing short of financial wizardry.

That is why it is devastating to see the lack of support given by the government as school meal providers struggle because of inadequate funding.

One of my great frustrations is that school food is still seen as an add-on during the school day, not as a lesson in its own right.

Across the country, there are children who still do not know how to sit at a table or how to use a knife and fork, let alone where their food comes from or what vegetables are. And yet there is no cohesive strategy to address these issues across the UK.

Cookery is taught in some schools but not all and many schools follow the food-based standards but not all of them do.

The Soil Association’s annual state of the nation report into children’s food in England (2020) includes the results of an 18-month investigation based on interviews with headteachers, school meal providers and caterers.

Interviews revealed that some caterers are knowingly not complying with the Department for Education’s School Food Standards (DfE, 2015), which ensure meals are nutritious, in order to make cost savings, and many are trading down from British food to lower quality imported ingredients.

The report outlines five recommendations for urgent government action and investment:

  • Ensure compliance with the School Food Standards.
  • Ensure school meals are adequately funded.
  • Introduce a “plant protein day” in schools.
  • Set an ambitious target for organic in public procurement, including in schools.
  • Extend the Soft Drinks Industry Levy to artificial sweeteners.

Many schools have made food an integral part of the school experience, and the challenge is to build on the great work that is happening in these places and spread it across the country. We need to value food and the catering service, from the farmer to the food on our children’s plates.

We need a cohesive message across all schools. My wish is that lunchtime is seen as a lesson and that enough time is given not just to eat the food, but to appreciate its value too.

The school meals catering service has faced many challenges in the last 20 years and has risen to every one of those.

I believe we can help change the nation’s eating habits and tackle the multiple, interrelated diet and climate-related crises we face. But school caterers cannot do it in isolation. It needs to go beyond the school kitchen, into the whole school and further afield – and it needs government support to do this.

The Food for Life ethos has always been that everyone has a voice and should be heard. The government now needs to listen to teachers, school cooks, caterers, governors and pupils across the country to make positive changes.

This is a crucial tipping point for children’s food, our health and the climate as a whole.

  • Jeanette Orrey is co-founder of Food for Life and co-chair of the School Food Plan Alliance.

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