‘Our school meals aren’t healthy ‘cos we ‘ave chocolate cake for puddin’!’ said a year five child I was working with, as I aimed to explore whether the mandatory School Food Standards are having an educational impact on our students – it turns out they are not.
The chocolate cake this young nine year old with his thick Yorkshire accent was referring to uses 70% cocoa, had beetroot in it for added iron and less than half the sugar of a mini roll. But the catering service can’t tell children this, for fear of them rejecting the food that they’re eating – quite simply, the children in our schools are being ‘tricked’ into eating healthily because we can’t trust that they will consume the goodness – the parents are none the wiser either.
I’m in Sheffield, talking to a group of nine and ten year olds who are telling me the importance of being healthy. I watch as they have a debate on whether the sugar in baked beans makes it an unhealthy food – only to conclude that due to the ‘one of your five a day’ label, they seem to remember seeing on the side of the tin, unanimously the vote is swayed to ‘yes of course it’s healthy!’. This is a battle.
I spend most of my time consulting with head teachers as they tirelessly attempt to make sense of the latest expectations and legislation in relation to children’s health and wellbeing, battling with parents as they try and explain that the school meals are healthy and the desserts on offer are taken into account with the nutrition in the rest of the menu.
‘The biggest battle’ Sarah, a head teacher in a small village primary school tells me, ‘is parents, – they know that moving around is good and they know that Coca-Cola is bad, but they can’t put a balanced lunchbox together’. Sarah is right. The Children’s Food Trust found in a report that just 1% of packed lunches were well balanced and nutritious and despite the intervention of the government’s universal infant free school meals, that funds school meals for 5- 7 year olds, there are still some schools where take up is as low as 30%. The current generation of parents simply do not trust the food being served. We have come a long way since the 2006 ‘feed me better campaign’ that highlighted the poor nutrition on offer in our school kitchens as Kate Quist, managing director Fresh Start Catering tells me:
“We are bound by legislation and take a lot of pride of using information and guidance to compile menus from a combination of resources provided by The Children's food Trust, The Soil Association, Food for Life and The School Food Plan. This ensures that our menus are nutritionally balanced and use local produce giving children the best food possible. "
This is common, despite not all schools having kitchens, caterers are continuously exploring ways that schools can provide hot, nutritious and tasty food for all students at lunchtime – it’s an expectation, but these messages are not getting through and food education is not being absorbed.
The more students are eating school meals, the more exposure they will have in trying certain types of foods and therefore, a higher level of nutrition they will consume and the healthier they will be.
Children are in school for 200 days a year, 120 hours a month or 30 hours a week. Despite this, less than one hour is put aside for students to sit down together and eat each day, which is fundamental for children’s holistic growth and education - a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found links between children not eating as part of a ‘family’ (around a table) and childhood obesity.
This is the responsibility of the whole school community – quite simply, schools have a responsibility to ensure that lunchtimes are attractive, pleasant and calm, caterers have the responsibility in ensuring the food on offer is attractive, tasty and served with a smile and parents have the responsibility to ensure that either their children are eating a school meal or the food on offer in their lunchbox exposes their child and his or her peers to the best nutrition that is available.
Lunchtimes are no longer a time where we must conveyer children in and then out of the dining hall as quickly as we can. Lunchtimes give us the opportunity to grow our children holistically and socially. We are in the middle of an obesity epidemic. If children are not exposed to a positive eating experience from the earliest possible opportunity, then we are avoiding an ideal.
Lunchtimes are no longer a time where we must conveyer children in and then out of the dining hall as quickly as we can. Lunchtimes give us the opportunity to grow our children holistically and socially and this must be recognised. We are in the middle of an obesity epidemic. If children are not exposed to a positive eating experience from the earliest possible opportunity, then effectively, we are enabling them to make poor choices. Children are in school for thirty hours per week. Each day, a significant proportion of time is allocated toward eating. This is where ‘food education’ happens. Whether at home or in the school dining room, we must see this as an opportunity to educate - we should encourage a conversation around food in order to inspire children to explore the content of what they’re eating and where it comes from – we have a duty to do all we can to ensure that the food they’re eating makes them feel good. From the moment they wake up to the moment they go to sleep. Quite simply, the more transparent exposure we give to our children regarding food, the better choices they will make and the healthier they will become.
It begins at breakfast…