We've come a long way since Turkey Twizzlers but the battle for healthier school food is not over yet. Our caterers have helped get this far and it would be short-sighted to stop now.
Since the implementation of the School Food Plan in 2013, school catering has raced to be the best, in quality and provenance. Caterers have responded fantastically to the challenges set by the Department for Education to find more local, sustainable food, and healthier ingredients, something the Soil Association’s Food for Life Catering Mark supports wholeheartedly.
Childhood obesity is now a cross-government priority, with a focus on primary schools – 10% of children enter primary school obese and 20% leave obese. Diet-related illnesses cost the NHS £10 billion every year. We need to reverse this trend. Ensuring pupils have at least one healthy meal a day is essential to tackling our national obesity crisis.
At last David Cameron has confirmed that he sees the value of universal infant free school meals (UIFSM) and now we can go full steam ahead to tackle the national obesity crisis. UIFSM was introduced as a way to ensure all infants get a nutritious school lunch (only 1% of packed lunches measure up nutritionally). It’s worked, with take-up over 85%, so there should be no reason for it to be brought into question in the first place.
But to maintain a healthy nation we must unite and safeguard school meals for the future. We’ve come too far and there is too much at stake – our children, your children, their health and our health. We need to build on the good work already seen in reception, year 1 and year 2, and make sure that older children can also benefit from good-quality school meals.
We have the research to show that all children benefit from free school meals but, notably, low-income children benefit the most. Their nutritional intake improved dramatically in the UIFSM pilot projects and academically children at these schools quickly moved ahead of their peers elsewhere, by almost a term. Imagine what the effect could be further up the school.
All children benefit from nutritionally balanced, fresh, varied food. Research commissioned by the School Food Plan and carried out by Opinium shows that almost a quarter of children benefit from the variety to their diets and a fifth will try new foods. This is primarily down to the introduction of free school meals to younger children.
The effects don’t stop at the school gate. Improving school food has benefits that reach into the community and beyond. Family attitudes to food can change as children take their understanding of food back home. More meals means more staff means more jobs, improving local and national economies. Caterers investing £1 in Food for Life Catering Mark menus return more than £3 to the local community, mostly in the form of food supply opportunities and jobs.
As the government shapes its Child Obesity Strategy, now is the time to measure how UIFSM is improving children’s nutrition during the school day. We need to take the power into our own hands and find new ways to ensure that children continue to choose school meals as they move into year 3 and beyond. Food must not only be healthy but it needs to be good quality.
If you are already pioneering positive change in your school it is essential you talk about the reaction of pupils and their parents to school food. No governmental funding is guaranteed forever so we need to make sure everyone knows how great school meals can be. Mobilise and motivate parents. I know that I would fight for my kids to eat better food and I am sure I am not the only one.
If you hold a Catering Mark, talk about it. One in three primary schools in the UK have a Catering Mark, showing that although many schools are taking steps to improve their food, there is still work to be done. If this is you, feel proud, but keep on fighting – go for silver and gold. This is how we will bring our nation’s school food up to standard and help cope with the growing strain of obesity and diet-related illness on the NHS.
And finally, don’t be tempted to join that race to the bottom. It’s a race that no one will win. It is not the finish line, it’s simply returning to our Turkey Twizzler starting point. No caterer, either individual or as an organisation, wants that to be their legacy. We need to boost UIFSM take-up even further to prove once and for all that it can, and will, succeed in ensuring every child eats well so they can lear”n well from their first days at school. It’s time to act.
Rich Watts is senior Catering Mark manager at the Soil Association.