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We need to feed children well.



The above quote sets out the narrative for the following discussion piece.

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



The school food industry in the UK enormous. Currently there are 32,000 schools located in the UK, which all have children waiting to be fed daily. For the majority of these 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. In the public eye, schools may well respond positively to a 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 menu 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, the role of a school food caterer is 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 little 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.


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 leading to 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 matters. Unfortunately, for many children there is a mismatch, and this mismatch is a problem.

School Food and Austerity:

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.

How we see school food:

Here at Can Cook, we passionately believe in feeding people well. We see school food as the most important element for keeping children/young people healthy and well.  We have created a school food model that will feed every pupil in school good, fresh food and in addition, provide every family struggling in food poverty, free good food for as long as they are in crisis. Every school food provider can offer this service.

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 often 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 make for unhealthy diets 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/

School food caterers have a duty to feed children well and to do so, a good fresh meal should always be the main offer during lunchtimes.

Reluctance for Change – Why do pupils choose poor foods?

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 as such, 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. 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.

The importance of the lunch hour

Like all institutions, a school day is organised around food. Like adults at work, most children look forward to their lunch hour. It is a period of respite that they require, to curb their hunger and recuperate before an afternoon of work. However, on top of ignoring the importance of good food some schools are ignoring the importance of the lunchtime period as a vital/pivotal tool in a child’s education.

In some communities there has been a discussion/move to adjust and shorten the school lunchtime – to later in the day and to only 30 mins – but how does this benefit the child? It is a move wholly predicated on the concerns of the teacher/school, as opposed to the welfare and education of the child.  Just take a minute to picture your own working lunchtime routine and compare it to the new suggested lunchtime to be potentially forced on pupils. Imagine for instance your employer allowing you to purchase food from one retailer, and installing a shorted lunchtime than means you have to stay put in one place and you can’t eat it until much later in the day (1.30pm to be exact) – Imagine the reaction that would ensue? So why would any consideration be paid to enforcing the same regime onto children?

Changes to their timetables have exposed schools for failing to recognise the reality of life for their pupils. For example, according to a survey conducted by the British Nutrition Foundation, one in four secondary school pupils skip breakfast on their average school day. This could be for a number of reasons, including lack of income, but the fact remains the same: for a quarter of all secondary schoolers, their first meal of the day is their lunch. Schools who are thinking about these changes or are already squeezing lunchtimes are evidently ignorant to the lives of the pupils they are responsible for.

Children who are forced to wait for their lunch become hungrier and more disruptive, with plenty of evidence that even the shortest term, hunger causes behavioural issues. This ongoing cycle of poor-food practice around children catalyses immediate problems of poor behaviour in school as well as wider issues of depression, poor body image and longer lasting health effects – to name just a few. Protected lunchtimes and good-food is simply common sense and must become the starting point for any school to become recognised as a good-school.

A Call for Change

Austerity and the poor-food practice that surrounds it is creating a food-underclass. This underclass are being forced to eat food that most people would never choose to eat. In inner cities, the circumstances leading to a child becoming part of this underclass is affecting about 2 in 5 children and the numbers are growing. In any community, schools are integral to the development of the children they take in and the wider community they tie into. They have incredible power and influence and it is this power and influence that can bring about the most positive change in a child’s diet and wellbeing.

We have set out here some concerns about the direction school food has gone in, and to finish provide here, a list of improvements/changes, every school can make or maintain if they want to feed children and young people well;

  • Set menus that are about the wellbeing of the child not the gross profit of the catering provider.
  • Protect the lunchtime as sacrosanct in the school day
  • Remove sandwiches as a main meal option in all schools
  • Serve only fresh meals to children during their lunchtimes
  • Make sure all school meals are relevant to the eating habits of the children they serve
  • Provide a good-food safety net for hungry families caught up in food poverty

All of the above are simple changes to make, easy to implement and can be afforded, therefore any school that remains outside of the above, chooses to do so.

One final thought…We operate our school food model behind a simple message:

If you feed a child well, they are more likely to study/live well, if you don’t, they won’t.

Let’s hope it catches on.


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