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UPFs are ‘robbing’ children of the joy in learning to eat

Chefs, campaigners and teachers are urging the government to back a ‘whole-school’ approach to food. By David Burrows.

The government must introduce a reduction target for ultra-processed foods (UPFs) in children’s diets, according to a new report by the Soil Association. 

The charity also called for mandatory procurement standards, requiring caterers to source more organic, seasonal and agroecological produce for freshly prepared meals. And all schools should be supported to adopt a whole-school approach to foods.

Alongside the report, the Soil Association published an open letter, signed by chefs, campaigners and head teachers, that called on the prime minister Rishi Sunak to revive previous commitments to roll this approach out across all schools.

“Learning to eat should be an adventure – joyful and challenging – but our children are increasingly being robbed of the experience,” the letter warns. “Many are growing up not knowing the tastes, textures, and smells of real food.”

Ultra-processed foods now make up around two-thirds of the average child’s diet in the UK and a growing bank of evidence has linked them to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. 

Signatories to the letter – including Thomasina Miers, Bee Wilson, Kimberley Wilson and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall as well as head teachers, youth activists and peers – are concerned not only about the health impacts of these foods, but also about how they “rob” children of the chance to experience the more natural, whole foods that are essential for their development.  

The group has urged the government to support schools and ensure all kids can access healthy and freshly prepared school meals, cooking and growing activities, visits to British farms, and sensory food education. 

The Soil Association’s report explores how schools can be part of the solution. It draws on learnings from 20 years of its Food for Life initiative, which supports schools to adopt a whole-school approach to food education and healthy school meals. 

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. School meals are at least 75% unprocessed, 50% local and 30% organic, and more than 70% of pupils are choosing to eat school meals. 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 Organization’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.

recent Footprint report explored how schools can overcome challenges to adopting a whole-school approach such as a lack of skills, budgetary pressures and competing priorities.

Independent evaluation of Food for Life shows that if all schools in England followed this approach, a million more children would be eating their five-a-day.  Embedding good food in school culture not only results in children eating a third more fruit and vegetables, but it also tracks back home with 45% of parents eating better because of their children’s engagement with Food for Life. 

As well as sensory education and mandatory procurement standards, the school fruit and vegetable scheme (SFVS) should be revised to source more British, local and organic produce, boosting fruit and vegetable consumption and introducing children to a range of textures and flavours, the Soil Association said.

A percentage reduction target for UPFs in children’s diets can be 
achieved by boosting consumption of minimally processed fruits, vegetables and pulses, it said. 
“A comprehensive approach involving schools, caterers, families, and policymakers is essential for shifting children’s diets away from UPFs,” said Oona Buttafoco, author of the Soil Association’s report.

Rob Percival, head of food policy for the Soil Association’s Food for Life programme said too few children “know the taste of bitter greens or the nutty flavour of beans and lentils, or have felt the crunch of a tomato bursting on their tongue. But we know schools can help to turn this around. “ 

It has been almost two years since the government published a white paper that committed to supporting schools to adopt this whole-school approach, but that policy commitment has not yet been fulfilled. 

“There are no easy solutions,” said Buttafoco, “but schools, nurseries and other early year settings can play a pivotal role in supporting children to develop a healthy and beneficial relationship with food. All schools should be supported to provide fresher, healthier food options and embed food education across all areas of school life.”