School food guidelines are “outdated”, say campaigners

Schools should be allowed to choose how often they serve dairy, meat, and fish, as long as pupils’ nutritional needs are met, according to campaigners.

In a letter to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, campaigners wrote: “Individual school caterers should have the freedom to ensure that children's nutritional needs are met regardless of whether they offer these animal-derived foods. Removing this requirement would be in line with the UK's health goals, climate science, and modern dietary choices.”

The letter was submitted to the government’s National Food Strategy consultation, which could include revisions to school food.

Peta UK (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is leading the campaign, with support from Greenpeace and Paul, Mary, and Stella McCartney, Founders, Meat Free Monday. In England, they noted, schools are required to serve a portion of dairy every day, a portion of meat at least three times a week, and a portion of fish once every three weeks. These requirements are “out of step with public health advice, are damaging to the environment, and cause animals pain and suffering”.

In April, public sector caterers committed to reduce meat consumption in schools, as well as hospitals, care homes and universities, by 20%. LACA, ASSIST FM, HCA, NACC, TUCO and PACE are all supporting the target.

According to the school food standards, schools should “encourage all children to have a meat-free day each week, using alternatives such as pulses, soya mince, tofu and Quorn”.

There have also been reports that the coronavirus crisis could accelerate the shift towards sustainable diets, with fewer animal products.

To date, however, moves by caterers to reduce the amount of meat on menus have not always well supported. In Edinburgh, for example, there was a backlash – from parents and farmers – when schools joined the Meat Free Monday campaign. Meanwhile, The Independent reported in February how a number of schools were struggling to encourage children to eat vegetarian or vegan options. Kids were therefore going home hungry.

Responding to the new PETA campaign, Bridget Benelam, a spokesperson for the British Nutrition Foundation, told The Guardian that it was vital that schools provided nutritious meals. “It’s possible, although challenging, to put together menus for children without animal products that provide all the essential nutrients they need to grow and be healthy, and there are many positive aspects of having a more plant-based diet.”

She added: “However, it is important to consider that dairy, meat and fish are bioavailable sources of some key vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B12, calcium, iron and zinc, and so guidance would be needed on suitable plant-based alternatives that could provide these in adequate amounts.”

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