Dela Foster and Stephanie Wood, leads, School Food Matters
Nov 20, 2017
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.
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 has ten years experience engaging with schools and can provide advice and access to food education programmes to support schools to improve their food culture.
We are supporting Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity to delve into the complexities of childhood obesity. Working with three schools within the London Borough of Southwark, we want to see what impact a good food culture at school has on children’s health. We plan to help the schools offer their pupils an alternative to the dominant, obesogenic environment and support them to become ‘healthy zones’.
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.
The term ‘healthy zone’ comes from a fascinating new report recently published by Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, 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 they are the most expensive options, and are often 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.
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.
Big steps have also 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.
Despite turbulent times over at Westminster, the policy appears safe for the duration of this parliament but health professionals, headteachers and campaigners alike must continue to push government to evaluate the policy so that we have robust evidence of its positive impact on children’s health and attainment.
We hope that lessons learned in Southwark will demonstrate the important role schools can play in tackling what the World Health Organisation describes as “one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st Century.”