By Stephanie Wood, School Food Matters
Much has been written about the increase in overweight and obese children recently and to be honest, the figures are shocking. With one in three 10 and 11-year-olds being either overweight or obese, and all the potentially life long health issues that come with this, it is a major public health challenge.
Children spend 190 days a year at school and eat at least one meal in school on each of those days. This gives us an opportunity to influence children’s attitude to food, their eating habits and food choices.
At School Food Matters, we specialise in working closely with schools to support them to make improvements to school food provision and food education. It isn’t easy working with schools, especially in the current funding environment where teachers are so stretched and money is so tight. However, School Food Matters now has 11 years experience engaging with schools and can provide advice and access to food education programmes to support schools to improve their food culture.
At School Food Matters we know that every school is different and every head teacher has competing priorities, so practitioners working in schools need to be flexible and responsive to changing circumstances.
Once a school has decided that they need to improve health outcomes for their children, we can give them the impetus and knowhow to make the necessary changes to become a ‘healthy zone’; a place where children’s health and wellbeing is consistently and actively promoted through the policies and actions of the whole school community.
The term ‘healthy zone’ comes from a report published in November 2017, which shines a light on what is currently happening in schools across the country. Food Education Learning Landscape (FELL) surveyed teachers, pupils and parents on their views of the food and food education offered at their schools. It demonstrates how varied the picture is, with some schools doing a fantastic job at teaching children about where food comes from, modelling good eating habits and encouraging children to make healthy choices. Other schools are sadly much more part of the obesogenic environment seen beyond the school gates.
We see a common scenario in some secondary schools; healthy lunch dishes are available but often they are the most expensive options, and hidden behind the pizza slices and chips. Some young people reported that it is actually quite difficult to eat healthily at their secondary schools. And instead of modelling good behaviour, overworked teachers are regularly seen eating chocolate bars and devouring fizzy drinks between lessons.
Students are receiving and understanding public health messages such as ‘five a day’ and ‘sugar smart’ during lessons, but what they see in the corridors and in the canteen is contradictory and confusing.
But there is good news too. Some schools are doing an amazing job in supporting children to keep themselves healthy. We have found schools where children are involved in designing the school menu, introducing food that is both healthy and enticing; they grow their own fruit and vegetables; they learn to cook healthy meals and through visits to farms can reflect on where food comes from.
Many primary schools have made dramatic improvements in the last ten years, but secondary schools need some help. That’s why School Food Matters is joining forces with Sustain; the alliance for better food and farming, to develop a campaign called Healthy High Schools, looking at ways to support secondary schools to become healthy zones.
Big steps have been made legislatively. Universal Infant Free School Meals is an enormously positive policy that has, at a stroke, increased take-up of school meals across the country and normalised healthy eating, making unhealthy packed lunches the exception rather than the rule. This is important as only 1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards of a school meal and for too long head teachers have spent lunchtime policing packed lunches leading to tensions between parents and the school.
The next step must be to monitor and evaluate school meal provision and the Healthy Rating Scheme, proposed by the Department for Education in the Childhood Obesity Plan, presents an opportunity to do this. School Food Matters, along with campaign partners at Jamie Oliver and Sustain, is pushing government to deliver on its promised rating scheme and to include secondary schools in the scheme.
Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman recently said “We must recognise that schools cannot provide a silver bullet for all societal ills ... Families, government, industry, and other parts of the public sector all have a role to play in making food and drink healthier, and supporting children to make better choices.” We agree. Obesity is everyone's problem but, unlike Ofsted, we see schools as a unique environment to positively influence children's choices around food and health and we must seize this opportunity and play a part in tackling what the World Health Organisation describes as “one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century.”