A watershed moment for school food?

Rob Rees, Children's Food Trust ChairmanBeing completely honest, there are a lot of people who’ve asked me over the last year whether the government’s school food review would come up with anything ‘new’. Was there a silver bullet that no one had ever thought of? Were there great ideas which hadn’t been tried? Was a ‘eureka!’ moment likely?

And while many of the themes and ideas will be familiar to everyone involved with school food, what is new is that this is a shot in the arm for the message that people like us champion every single day:  great food in schools is important. Eight years on from Jamie’s School Dinners, maybe our country was in need of a prod to remember what great school food can do for children, and what has to be done to help schools produce it.

Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, with the support of an expert panel, have done a great job of underlining the things that work, where the effort needs to be focused – and by whom. Look back to Jamie’s original 2005 Feed Me Better manifesto and you’ll find some similar themes: the need to keep being creative with food to get more kids eating school food; the need to better train and support staff; the need for a long-term national commitment and funding.  Read the 2005 School Meals Review Panel report and appendices – commissioned by the then government to set out the actions needed after Jamie’s campaign – and you’ll find recommendations around increasing take up, teaching children practical cooking, improving the quality of food, the need for good sources of information on how to do school food well and supporting staff with training and funding. Look at the things that organisations like the Children’s Food Campaign, Chefs Adopt a School, Food for Life Partnership, LACA, School Food Matters, the Children’s Food Trust and many others have been working on since then and you’ll be able to match many points. But perhaps others who are more removed from the day-to-day realities of school meals had assumed that just because we know what works, the job was done. Far from it. That’s why this review was important.

We always knew that government, caterers and schools would have to be in this for the long-haul. Whole-scale change takes time. Will we still be talking about Henry and John’s recommendations in another eight years?  I sincerely hope so. I hope that in eight years time, we’ll be talking about how this latest national school food plan galvanised government – and politicians of all parties – to keep up a sustained commitment to good food in our schools. I hope we’ll be talking about how more head teachers across the country were inspired to take a lead on food in their school – not settling for something that’s less than their pupils deserve because it feels too hard a problem to tackle: there is lots of help out here for you. I hope that strong support nationally and locally – together with the funding announced today to help – will have meant that the great lunchtime experience already being delivered to many children becomes a great experience delivered to them all.

To all the nay-sayers who will question the value of this review: anything which reminds us all of why we need to get food right in our schools is ok by me. Now let’s all get on with the job.

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How to eat…

Fiona Faulkner

I’ve talked at length about the kinds of foods I feel schools should offer – but what about how these foods are served? With the School Food Plan due to be published very soon, here’s my menu of the added extras which could make for the perfect school lunch experience….

First, I’d love more schools to take a continental approach and encourage our kids to enjoy mealtimes in themselves (in my utopic world a selection of kids would help prepare the school’s lunch, and everyone would take a full 90 minutes to be served, to eat, and then to rest and digest…) I know, I know… timetables are tight and the curriculum must be met. But we’re in my world now, so bear with me…

Next, I’d love us to see school dinners as an opportunity for broader, non-curriculum based learning. Perhaps incorporate a lunchtime debating club (each table could discuss a topic, with a chairperson assigned, and each diner encouraged to offer a considered viewpoint). Suddenly we’d be teaching valuable workplace skills – negotiation and problem-solving – not to mention social skills such as listening, and boosting confidence for each child who is speaking their opinion out loud. How about creating and teaching a school democracy where each table discusses a proposed new rule – with votes being cast on the way out (hey, if it’s good enough for Waitrose…)?

Geography could raise its head with culinary themed weeks… or languages where diners must speak only French (etc) at the table – with teachers / volunteers on hand to help things along.

How about inviting inspiring local peple to head over and offer a lunchtime career chat: “How I became an actor / how I set up my own business….” type of thing. The kids would (hopefully) learn and be inspired, and the school would gain valuable future contacts, immersing themselves into the local community (in other words, kill two birds with one stone-baked pizza). Not only that, but imagine the *sponsorship / time-bank potential for your next big event. I suspect a lot of locals would be honoured to be asked to do this kind of thing, such as my husband was when he recently did a ‘radio’ talk at our kids’ school.

I had a lovely chat with Henry Dimbleby last year where he talked at length about the different schools he and John Vincent had visited as part of their School Food Plan project.

One of the things I remember most is his description of a school that had adopted a ‘family dining’ approach to school dinners. Essentially each table represented a cross section of ages, with older kids grabbing big dishes to be brought to – and (crucially) served at – the table. In this way kids retain portion control (which I think is respectful, though obviously needs to be managed) as well as fostering a nurturing atmosphere; let’s say for example that a Year 7 kid is being bullied. They may well be more likely to talk about this with a Year 11 pupil as opposed to breaking the unwritten rule of actually telling a teacher. Not only that but I bet a Year 11 is as likely to spot the signs [as a teacher].

What I also love about this ‘family dining’ approach is that different roles and responsibilities can be designated: somebody to get the tray; somebody to set the table; somebody to serve; somebody to clear the plates etc.

I recently had a meeting at my own kids’ school, discussing its new community kitchen. Call me idealistic (which of course I am), but I suggested that the dining hall use real cutlery, decent table cloths, comfy chairs – anything to create a home-from-home atmosphere.

This article from The Sunday Times has some terrific examples of schools doing an amazing job at lunchtime. Still not convinced? Head to paragraph five where it talks about exam results and behaviour.

I’ve said it many times over and I’ll say it again: good eating habits have to be learned and therefore taught. And since many kids don’t have the opportunity to learn these behaviours at home, it’s more important than ever to ensure these are taught at school.

As ever, @ChildFoodTrust and I would love to hear your views!

@fiona_faulkner

* “Hi is that [CEO of Business] who came to our school last year? Would you mind sponsoring our [event]?”

Food writer and broadcaster Fiona Faulkner works with us on our Take Two campaign, to help parents and schools get kids eating more fruit and veg during the school day.

Ready for action?

??????????????????????????????????????????????????  If I had a pound for every time someone’s asked me the question in the last few months: “So, what’s going to be in the new School Food Plan then?”, I’d be retiring to the Bahamas. I’m sure most of you working in the school food sector might be joining me! But as we wait for the next chapter for school food in England to unfold, it got me thinking back over its history in recent decades…..

  • The 80s. A time of huge change for school meals. Local authorities were no longer required to provide a school meal at all. Prices were to be decided locally, and nutritional standards for food in schools were abolished. Under Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT), school meals services had to be put out to tender and a ‘bottom line’ culture began – less nutritious but more profitable fizzy drinks, crisps, chocolate and sweets. Many kitchens closed and replaced by re-heat units or meals bussed in from elsewhere. Much cooking from scratch replaced by convenience food: the Turkey Twizzlers and smiley potato faces remembered not so fondly by many who were at school then. Cooks can only watch as skills are worn away in many kitchens, the focus switching from dicing to defrosting.
  • The 90s: ‘Fair Funding’ provisions come into force, allowing each secondary school to decide for itself how to assign money to school meals. Primary and special schools are given the option to do the same. ‘Best Value’ replaces CCT, and decisions about school meals provision become ever more driven by finance.
  • The noughties: growing concerns about what children are eating at school lead to minimum nutritional standards under the 2000 Education Regulations . The 2002 Education Act extends free school meals to more children in homes receiving Family Credit , but many parents still opt for packed lunches instead. Enter a certain pukka chef…. and the rest, as they say, is recent history (summarised a few months back in this blog from our former Chief Exec), thanks to the hard graft by cooks, catering companies, teachers and heads, local authorities and so many other people and organisations pushing for one very simple thing for every child at school: a decent meal every lunchtime.

So, what will the School Food Plan bring for the next decade? One thing’s for sure, the organisations working on it – including us here at the Trust – are focused on the most important point in all of this: let’s leave the school meals of previous decades back where they belong, and make sure they only keep getting better and better.

Jeremy heads up our support to schools. Email Jeremy.

Read more about our work as part of the School Food Plan Expert Panel