School caterers – put your finger on the pulse

Evidence suggests that eating less and better meat is good for health, the planet and kitchen finances – which is why Rob Percival of the Soil Association wants all school caterers to introduce a weekly plant-based protein day.

Language can provoke. When the Soil Association called for a plant-based protein day to be implemented in all schools, a lively debate ensued. Was the Soil Association embracing veganism? Did this mean that meat was bad? Shouldn’t children be protected from fads and meddling NGOs and given choice when it came to their food?

Meat is emotive, and never far from triggering a debate. Entrenched and polarised voices dominate the conversation on social media, making it difficult to engage in a nuanced dialogue. Nuance is necessary. The evidence is abundantly clear that we need to be eating less and better meat, both for our own health and that of the planet. But how much less? And what does ‘better’ mean?

School caterers can’t answer these questions, but they can support children on the right direction of travel. Thousands of schools working within the Food for Life Served Here scheme are implementing meat-free days, and using the cost saving to ‘trade up’ to local and higher-welfare meat for the rest of the week. This is ‘less and better’ in action.

The Soil Association thinks all schools should be taking this approach. The government is currently reviewing the School Food Standards, looking at how to reduce sugar and increase fibre consumption. One of the options it is considering is getting more beans and pulses on the menu. This provides an obvious opportunity. The UK Committee on Climate Change has called for a 20% reduction in red meat consumption, while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that we have only 10 years to make the change. A plant-based protein day, where meals are based around beans and pulses, will increase fibre consumption while setting a precedent for more sustainable, climate-friendly eating.

The Soil Association is calling for a plant-based protein day to be implemented in all schools, every week. This doesn’t mean abandoning meat – far from it! Meat is nutritious and forms part of a healthy diet, but we do not need to eat it every day.

There are already school chefs out there successfully introducing plant proteins. Steven Cross, head chef at Park Community School, Hampshire, says: “Pulses like lentils and chickpeas are very cheap and you can get a lot out of them, and using more of these ingredients plus fruit and vegetables means we can afford higher-quality meat the rest of the time.” 

There is currently a soft incentive within the School Food Standards towards a meat-free day – it’s encouraged, but many schools are nervous of introducing more plant proteins. Vegetarians and vegans must be catered for, but too often their offer lacks in diversity, consisting of pasta and pizza. Chefs like Steven are showing that children are open to new flavours and experiences, given the chance. There are potential wins for both kitchen finances and child health.

This is not to say it would be straightforward. If a plant-based protein day was to be introduced in schools, cooks and caterers should receive appropriate support and guidance, including tips for recipes tried and tested in schools. The message should be that meat remains integral to a healthy menu, and that serving a little less supports schools to buy better. Which parent wouldn’t welcome the provision of local or higher-welfare meat onto their child’s menu?

These are difficult times for school caterers, trying to balance squeezed budgets, and the prospect of going meat-free for a day might seem daunting. But this is the direction of travel needed, not only for school meals, but for society at large – the threat posed by climate change is now severe, and we must all play a role in shifting towards more sustainable consumption.

School caterers must be empowered to lead this shift, and supported to ensure that a move to ‘less and better’ is appealing to children, accepted by parents, and viable within financial constraints. It’s time for the government to step up to the plate.

Rob Percival is head of policy for food & health at the Soil Association

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