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Feed the need for fitter school food

16 July 2013

Is there anyone left out there who doubts the importance of good nutrition and food education?

  • Around one-quarter of all children entering primary school at age four are currently overweight or obese and this increases to one-third by the time those kids leave primary school, at age 11.
  • Recent NHS admission figures show that in the last decade alone, the number of children needing medical attention because they are overweight has increased from 872 in 2000 to 3,806 in 2009. That’s four times as many kids whose health has been seriously affected by their weight in a mere ten years.

I’m a trustee on the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation. So I welcome the suggestions in the recently published School Food Plan.

I was pleased when the Government commissioned Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, the two founders of the Leon restaurant chain,  to review school food. I’m not surprised by the results they found. Despite vast, Jamie Oliver-inspired improvements to school meals in recent years, take-up is still low at 43% and must improve – for the simple reason that packed lunches are nearly always less nutritious than a cooked meal.

It’s eight years now since Jamie Oliver’s Channel 4 series, School Dinners. Result?  Every newspaper supported his call for better school food for every child in this country.  The Labour Government bowed to public pressure, agreeing to invest a considerable amount in the school food system. This resulted in a whole slew of people creating important standards for the quality of school food, so that for the 190 days of the year that kids are at school, they’d get a tasty, nutritious meal, regardless of what they’re given at home.

It’s not all bad news. Many schools already have a fantastic food service.  There’s evidence that things have really improved for many kids and the School Food Standards are to thank for that.  But there’s a lot still to be done. Hence the newly published School Food Plan, aiming to answer how we can ensure that all children get nutritious school meals and how to ensure they have enough knowledge and confidence to understand what good food is, so they can choose to eat better food for themselves.

The broad points in the School Food Plan add up to an important step forward in the fight for better health for all children. Hopefully, it’s the start of some important, long-term, positive changes.

Importantly, revised food-based standards are to be tested and introduced from 2014. They’ll replace the stringent guidelines which control the regularity with which food groups and processed items are served to children. The current systems involves caterers and nutritionists spending hours messing about with computer software, trying to get recipes to ‘fit’, only for children to completely ruin their work by what they actually pile on their plates in the food queue.

The Plan urges head teachers boost take-up by lowering the price of lunches. Possibilities include providing subsidised meals for reception classes in primary schools and Year 7 classes in secondary schools. As a result of the report, the Government is set to investigate the case for extending free school meals entitlement to all primary schools. Last but not least, the School Food Plan also aims to motivate school cooks – often undervalued members of the school team.  It’s imperative to engage as many head teachers and school cooks to come together to solve the problems with school food.

As someone who has seen and been involved in this whole development over the last decade, I say let’s champion the right for our children to be fed right – at school and home. Support our schools, our head teachers, our school cooks.  Get behind the new School Food Plan. Hold governments accountable for delivering their school food promises.