The Soil Association’s programme is boosting pupils’ fruit and veg consumption and could hold the key to the obesity crisis. By Lorna Picton.
The statistics surrounding childhood obesity make for uncomfortable reading. More than one in five children are overweight or obese when they start primary school, and this rises to one in three by the time they leave.
Obesity prevalence in children in the most deprived areas of the country is twice that of children in the least deprived areas, a gap which appears to be widening.
One in four secondary school children and 13% of primary school children eat less than a portion of fruit a day, while adults eat an average of 2.3 portions despite the government’s five-a-day campaign.
As a population, our veg consumption is in decline and is no better than it was in the 1970s.
With eating habits forming young, this is bad news for Britain’s health. But there are solutions. Good food holds the key to healthier people, a healthier economy and a healthier environment. And where better to lay the foundations for a lifetime of healthy choices than in our children?
The Soil Association’s Food for Life School Awards programme works to make Britain healthier through food, by making good food the easy choice for everyone, whoever and wherever they are. The programme takes a whole-system approach to food, changing both the food environment and the food culture within which people make choices.
Recent independent research found that pupils in Food for Life schools are twice as likely to eat five a day and one-third less likely to eat no fruit or vegetables than pupils in comparison schools. They eat about a third more fruit and vegetables than pupils in comparison schools, and significantly more fruit and vegetables at home.
Children in Food for Life schools eat more vegetables not only because they are served higher-quality meals but also because they are inspired to do so. Cooking, growing and farm visit activities have given them a tangible understanding of where food comes from and how it is prepared. Food has been made an integral and central part of the school day, and the dining room a space that supports broader learning about food.
Lunches that regularly include food grown by pupils help to reinforce core messages and understanding about healthy eating. The consensus in many schools is that since growing their own produce as part of the Food for Life School Award framework, menus and school meals have improved, with pupils eating better at lunchtime, more willing to try new foods, and increased numbers enjoying school lunches or bringing healthier packed lunches.
Foodservice businesses and contract caterers have an important role to play to help schools increase fruit and vegetable consumption by serving vegetables that children actually want to eat. This means not just including a portion of vegetables on the side of a meal and hoping for the best – if veg is an afterthought, it may not be eaten and can end up in the bin.
There are various tactics that caterers can adopt. They can integrate a variety of vegetables into sauces, even weaving in an extra portion, and they can work with the vibrancy of foods’ many colours and textures to make meals appealing and fun. Variety is key. Using a range of vegetables keeps meal time interesting for the children and nutritionally diverse, with raw salads and vegetables doubling as snacks.
Caterers may see this as a challenge, but it is also an opportunity to increase the number of children eating school meals. Children in Food for Life schools are not only eating more veg but are also 40% more likely to report that they “like” or “really like” school meals.
Our aim is for all schools to adopt the Food for Life School Awards framework. If all primary schools were to do so, a million more children would be eating their five a day and 100,000 more children would be eating some veg at school, instead of none at all.
Changing dietary behaviours is difficult – you can’t simply tell children to eat more veg or dish it up and hope for the best. The integrated, whole school approach that is embedded in the Food for Life framework has been shown to drive real change by engaging and inspiring children to eat well.
Lorna Picton is communications and marketing manager for Soil Association Food for Life. To find out more about the Food for Life Schools Award visit foodforlife.org.uk/schools