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School Food and Austerity – Why good food matters.

As a good food company working within our community, we have witnessed first-hand the devastation austerity causes as the policy continues to wreak havoc in communities across the UK.  Recently, the Food Foundation published findings that estimate 4 million children currently live in households that struggle to afford food that meets the national nutritional guidelines. At the same time, there are families who struggle to feed their children at all. Food, and more importantly, good food, has never been more of a pressing issue.

Much of what was socially achieved prior to the crash in 2008 has suffered at the hands of austerity, and school food is no different. School food budgets have come into focus and as a consequence for many pupils, school meals reflect only what many parents are able to purchase on any high street; ultra-processed, packaged goods that are set up to be reheated. Moreover, as food poverty spreads and increases across the UK, inadequate responses such as food banks in schools are doing more to worsen the diets of children and normalise the existence of poverty. Austerity has heightened the intensity of a negative food environment that continues to permeate all community food institutions. As a result, children’s health and wellbeing are being impaired on a scale not seen in this country for decades, but school food has the potential to be a key player in turning this around.

Austerity has always been and continues to be quite literally a matter of life and death for those worse off in Britain. One estimate is, 120,000 lives have been cut short as a direct result of austerity measures, put in place by successive Conservative Governments. Whilst cuts continue, in a school/community context, it is the responsibility of headteachers, school caterers and all community educators to protect children’s diets even in the most austere of times. Without the protection of this simple aspect of life, levels of obesity will continue to rise and with it a whole host of diet related, life threatening diseases.

Nutritious food is of the upmost importance to the wellbeing of everyone. We now know that what we eat is more likely to kill us in the long term than drugs or alcohol, so the best food habits start early on in life. As adults, if we’re lucky enough to have the income to choose, we can always make sure our diets are healthier, tasty, and fulfilling. This is not an option if you’re the youngest child, or a teenager at school. In fact, throughout their school lives, children, into young adults, have their diets chosen for them by adults (teachers/parents) who have no food expertise or who are following quite generic health guidelines. It is often a path of mostly processed, uninteresting food that serves to reinforce those bad food habits that later in life lead to life threatening conditions.

Food is a tool by which people can do incredible things and cooking well from fresh moves us all towards doing something worthwhile, maybe even incredible. We now have a nation fixated with celebrity chefs and cookbooks. The brand of Jamie Oliver has stretched into the psyche of the majority of school aged children, but do we ever see school food recipes as interesting as some of the food in Jamie’s cookbooks? And do we ever imagine what a school food menu could look like if all the meals were prepared using the freshest ingredients, and served to look as good as those Jamie pushes out? Surely if we did, and surely if we do, we may be somewhere closer to attracting more children into eating school dinners and more children eating good food that protects their health.

Having worked in the community food market for over a decade, we know what children and families like to eat. The choices they make are relatively straight forward. School aged pupils do not have complicated diets, just as we as adults do not have complicated diets. So why are some school food menus enormous and why are the same menus, trying to feed children food they do not recognise in their everyday lives. Good food that resonates with children in their everyday lives matter. Unfortunately, for many children there is a mismatch, and this mismatch is a problem.

We are all victims of food marketing and the charade marketing creates depicting poor-food as anything but poor. Children spend most of their childhood at school, and so school food is incredibly influential in reinforcing either good or bad food habits onto children. Outside school, children and families are bombarded by poor-food marketing/influences, and if both in and out of school the influences and images are conjoined, the race is only ever to an unhealthy bottom.

It has been estimated that up to 60% of people from any demographic never cook at home, so poor-food habits are already entrenched. In these circumstances, changing habits is difficult, but not impossible. A great place to start is in the school canteen, and it is incumbent on all teachers and caterers alike to create a good-food culture for every pupil, in every school.

We need to move past the current situation where our veg consumption is no better than in the 1970’s even after campaigns such as five-a-day (Food Foundation). We require a new approach and narrative driven by the provision of good food, full of vegetables, that will encourage children to eat – this is not difficult but many school food caterers do not want to do the work and many schools are ignorant to the facts.

Schools are changemakers otherwise what is the point of them? But if they are to ignore school food as an important part of their changemaking, they are stepping aside of their duties and are no more than facilitators in the poor-health of the children they take into their trust. This is a fact and a fact that is easy to rectify.

In our final instalment of this 3-part discussion piece on school food we shall be exploring the importance of the lunch hour and how we create change.

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