Should food be at the centre of the school?

As the government evaluates how to tackle child food insecurity, new evidence suggests it should consider the benefits of a whole-school approach to food. By Nick Hughes

The impact of covid-19 on children’s nutrition has been widely, and grimly, documented. A new report released last week by the Food Foundation found an estimated 2.3 million children have been living in households that have experienced food insecurity in the past six months, representing 12% of the total.

Headlines about children missing meals have been common during the pandemic, yet child food poverty is nothing new. A Food Foundation affordability report from 2018 highlighted how 3.7 million children in the UK were likely to be unable to afford a healthy and balanced diet, as defined by the government’s Eatwell Guide.

Schools are the one place where children should always be guaranteed a nutritious, hot meal. But research shows that, despite the best intentions of schools and their catering partners, piecemeal policies like school food standards and free school meals have limitations when it comes to ensuring that every child has a balanced meal each day.

Data from the Child Poverty Action Group shows that at least two in five school-age children (1.3 million) in England who live below the poverty line are not currently entitled to free school meals due to the income threshold being too low. They estimate a further 86,000 children in England do not qualify due to having no recourse to public funds.

A report by Guys and St Thomas’s Charity, meanwhile, shows that while the majority of schools and canteens embrace mandatory food standards, many struggle to apply them in practice resulting in a “postcode lottery” in the quality of school food children are eating.

The most recent UK national diet and nutrition survey found that diets of UK school-aged children continue to be suboptimal, with too much sugar and not enough fibre.

It’s for all of these reasons – and others beside – that health experts, along with some schools, are taking a growing interest in the concept of a ‘whole-school food approach’ as a way of ensuring school food has a positive effect on children’s diets and their overall wellbeing.

In essence the idea is that schools modify the entire school food environment with the aim of changing lifestyle and health related behaviours in schools. One example often cited in the UK is Park Community School in Hampshire, which holds a Food for Life gold award and has embedded food education throughout the day. Students are taught to grow vegetables and look after and rear animals on the school’s own smallholding with the vegetables, and in some cases meat, from the farm used in the school kitchen. The aim is not only to promote healthy eating but to allow students to make the connection between what they eat and where and how it is grown.

The concept is not new: the World Health Organisation’s ‘health promoting schools’ framework is a whole-school approach that dates back to the 1980s. But a lack of awareness and promotion of the framework, together with poor understanding of the complexity of school systems, have been identified as barriers to its implementation and evaluation.

A whole-school approach does, however, remain a focus for academics with the latest contribution to the evidence base a paper published recently in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity. Researchers ran a project in 15 Northern Irish primary schools involving over 900 pupils in year groups aged 6–7 and 10–11 years in an area of socio-economic disadvantage to see the impact whole-school educational and environmental interventions would have. They concluded that modifying the whole-school food environment in primary schools does indeed have a positive effect on children’s wellbeing, knowledge about food and dietary intake.

For the study, schools were randomly divided into several groups. One group had a ‘nourish’ intervention which aimed to influence children’s awareness of food across food groups, encourage tasting and identification of new foods, and improve dietary intake and awareness of food preparation and cooking techniques. Specifically, it saw children provided with healthy snacks like fruit, high fibre bread and milk; resources to improve school food presentation like cookery equipment and recipes; education materials to help children learn about senses, tastes and flavours, and to encourage them to try new foods; catering for school events; and attendance at tasting days at local higher education colleges to encourage tasting of locally-produced foods.

Some schools were assigned to an ‘engage’ group where they received lessons on topics such as the food chain, product development, growing food, animal welfare, sustainability, food labels, portion size and diet and health. Some schools received both the nourish and engage interventions while the final control group received no intervention.

Overall, the researchers found the nourish intervention, which aimed to alter the whole-school food environment and increase exposure to locally produced foods, produced more positive changes in children’s emotional and behavioural wellbeing, food knowledge, cooking competence and diets than the purely educational intervention.

They noted some limitations of their research, including the feasibility of whole-school food interventions in the long-term and their cost effectiveness. But their data reflected a growing recognition that interventions to improve children’s health and dietary habits should focus on the wider school food environment, not just on education alone.

At Footprint’s Responsible Business Recovery Forum on catering in education, it was noted how mandatory school food standards have helped create a better food culture in thousands of schools, but the spectrum from those doing “amazing things” and those “struggling” has increased. Interventions have come in quantity but lacked quality.

The fallout from coronavirus – including rows over free school meals – provides an opportunity for a rethink. When the time comes for a full evaluation of why so many children were not fed adequately during this pandemic (and before) and how to prevent the same happening again in the future, the evidence suggests the benefits of a whole-school approach to food demand a much closer look.

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