‘THE DIETS OF CHILDREN ARE PARTICULARLY CONCERNING: 47% OF PRIMARY SCHOOL CHILDREN’S DIETARY ENERGY COMES FROM HIGH FAT SALT SUGAR FOODS (HFSS), 85% OF SECONDARY SCHOOL CHILDREN ARE NOT EATING ENOUGH FRUIT AND VEGETABLES, MORE THAN 90% ARE NOT EATING ENOUGH FIBRE AND ALL ARE EATING TOO MUCH SUGAR.’
-THE FOOD FOUNDATION 2018
The above quote sets out the narrative for following and subsequent discussion pieces.
Setting the Scene
Millions of school age children are struggling with their diet and as a consequence, their health. This piece discusses the need for:
School food being recognised as an educator rather than a cost.
The preservation of the lunchtime period
All stakeholders in the school food supply chain to put children/young people’s health before profit.
Family food poverty to become an issue solved by school caterers rather than food banks
Here at Can Cook, we passionately believe in feeding people of all ages well and we see school food as the most important element for keeping children/young people healthy and active. We have created a school food model that will feed every pupil in school good, fresh food and in addition, will provide every family struggling in food poverty, free, good food for as long as they are in crisis. The school food industry is enormous. Currently there are 32,000 schools located in the UK, which all have children waiting to be fed daily. Meaning every school food provider has the means to offer the service described above.
Meals form the basis of our school food approach and meals must remain a mainstay of the wider UK school food industry approach. Too many school caterers are substituting meals for options such as sandwiches. Through our work, we will continue to challenge the notion that sandwiches should play an important part of any school food menu. Sandwiches are a snack, never a meal, and are frequently used by school caters as a successful route to improving their gross profit. Often, children who are in poverty, leave school and cheap sandwiches are also the default to meals at home. Sandwiches in school and sandwiches at home makes for an unhealthy diet and schools should never be a part of creating a diet that damages a young person’s health. Schools have the means to take a lead and remove the sandwich option, ensuring every child is able to eat a hearty meal, each day, every day. Being on the frontline of poverty for 13 years, we have explored the dangers of sandwiches in a child’s diet many times and summarised some of our thoughts in a previous blog: http://www.cancook.co.uk/2017/09/
For the majority of children, the food provided to them in their school canteens accounts for 25-33% of their daily energy. For many others, a school meal may constitute the only nutritious food they will eat in a day. The importance of school food in a child’s life is unparalleled, and it is incumbent on every school food caterer to ensure their menus are fresh and healthy, and a good, fresh meal is always the main offer at lunchtime. In the public eye, schools may well respond positively to this kind of healthy eating agenda but often in practice there is a different tale to be told.
As is typical from businesses and individuals operating within market driven societies, some school catering companies and headteachers alike are fixated on cost, and an abundance of choice. Meaning lunchtimes are seen as a cost base, and more regard is paid to a canteens’ range of cheaper meal options, than the quality of its food. The goal is after all to shift product and make a profit. In the recent past, menus have become extensive, and caterers can keep prices down by keeping the products ultra-processed, and the portions small. This protects the caterer’s gross profit and makes meals easier for school catering staff to reheat and serve. It is a model that acts to keep the caterer and school as the customer, satisfied with their business arrangements, but does little to satisfy the nutritional needs of children.
As an example; many secondary schools have integrated street food options into their canteens as a way of capturing a trend apparent on UK high streets. Options such as these are seen as an exciting way of expanding a menu whilst enticing school age children to choose school dinners. However, when the quality of fresh meals is subverted and replaced only with processed options able to hide behind the terms ‘new’ and ‘street’, the losers in this approach are the children. It is an example where caterers and schools claim to be offering up a good/better menu, due to ‘new’ choices, but the food chosen for children favours cost first. This method of cost over quality, should have no place in a school food model that has ample resource to feed children well in every school, every day.
School food caterers know they can sell a lot of HFSS foods, as these are the foods that many teenagers typically gravitate towards. It is this food group that can often dominate the school canteen. However, it is not the role of a school food caterer to reinforce the poor habits already in place in a mainstream society. Quite the contrary, in an educational setting, it is the role of a school food caterer to uphold the highest food standards, to educate children about food and take responsibility for the fact that they have a child’s health and wellbeing in their hands every time they cook.
Above all, children should have access to meals and the provision of a lunchtime that allows them to eat well and of course, excel in their education. School food and lunchtimes should be as important to any Government, local authority, board of governors, headteachers, teachers and caterer as anything else on the school curriculum or anything else that takes place in a school day. Unfortunately, school food is being reduced to nothing more than a cost and lunchtimes dictated by the needs of the teachers rather than the wellbeing of the child. It doesn’t have to be like this.
Social change, including the importance of good food, has somewhat been placed on hold as a result of austerity and its devastating effects. Tomorrow we shall be discussing the reality of school food under austerity and how in spite of this, good food should remain a priority.