Cultivating future diets
Schools have great potential to help children form healthy and sustainable food habits for life, but the current environment for helping children learn about food at schools is challenging. What can be done? We take a look at the drivers and opportunities for building good food cultures in schools.
Schools are unique settings for change, with huge potential to shape the attitudes and behaviours of future generations. They are settings where children from a vast range of backgrounds spend most of their early years, learning habits that will be with them throughout their lives. Historically, in the UK, school food programs have focused on nutrition and lunchtime provision, providing the poorest in society with a basic level of food. There have been campaigns to improve nutrition standards in schools, and more recently on the role of food provision and education in schools, as made famous by Jamie Oliver's 'Jamie's School Meals'. Current programs such as Food For Life have made significant progress by taking a 'whole settings' approach to school food, looking at the wider impact it can have on pupils, and how activities such as growing, farm visits and food education have positive impacts on pupils and communities.
My research has explored policy approaches for promoting sustainable diets within the school environment, and within this how attitudes towards meat can be addressed. There is ample evidence that a shift in attitudes towards meat consumption is required to address both public health and environmental needs. Within a school environment this means looking beyond lunchtime provision to how food is addressed within the curriculum and how education can shape attitudes towards animal welfare, health, nutrition and the environment. But how can this be done?
A positive food environment at school
It is easy to imagine what a good food culture in a school would look like. Ideally, food would be incorporated into all aspects of the school day, from the canteen to the classroom, and children would learn from a young age where meat comes from, how vegetables are grown and how the food choices we make impact us and the world around us. However, to translate this to reality is difficult. For a start, every school is different: from their physical location and infrastructure to the teachers and pupils that fill them. Furthermore, the transition from primary to secondary school is not one many food programs in schools have fully grasped yet. In a primary school it is much easier to include food across the school day, yet in secondary schools it is more difficult to incorporate gardening into school life when preparing pupils for their GCSEs is a priority. There is also greater social stigma and pressures around food choices as pupils gain more financial and social independence, and the school is no longer a closed environment.
The 2013 School Food Standards set out guidelines around school food provision and the introduction of cooking classes up to age 14. While it has had widely positive impacts in improving school food and providing a basic education in cooking, it does not address the wider impact of foods. There is almost no mention, in the plan or curriculum, of how meat should be addressed other than in the lunchtime standards. Ultimately the food culture in a school comes down to the individual school, and decisions taken by those within in it. Food cultures in schools are created through interlinking lunchtime provision, cooking lessons, school growing programs, farm visits and community involvement. Evaluative studies of these ‘whole settings’ approaches to food have shown clear positive links between improved food cultures and attainment, behaviour and health outcomes (Food for Life’s website provide a range of evaluative reports). Various studies have looked at the links between educational programs such as school gardens and farm visits and the positive impact on children’s knowledge about food production, the environment and issues surrounding meat consumption. At several schools I visited, teachers noted how programs such as these led to changes in diet, whether that was increased vegetable or reduced meat consumption.
What enables a school to develop a good food culture?
The vision of individuals within a school appears to be crucial to what sort of food culture developed. In most cases, this was led by the head teacher; their approach to food within the school permeated to the teachers, staff and pupils. Seeing the links between healthier food at lunchtime and improved pupil behaviour as the most obvious driver, but beyond that, the importance of food education in a child’s later life was seen as a far more abstract concept to grapple with. Ultimately schools, and head teachers, are motivated by outcomes, and what gets measured, gets done. While food standards at lunchtime are a requirement, there is almost no recognition of the importance of food in the Ofsted framework, and little requirement for children to make informed decisions around their food choices. Ultimately this means food is not a priority for many schools, or even a significant feature. Without motivated individuals, there is no incentive for schools to develop projects.
A good level of motivation, however, is not enough. When talking to individuals within schools it became clear that while there was general enthusiasm for food projects, most thought they required a lot of time and money; two things that were not necessarily available. Access to funding, and its role in allowing schools to develop and run their own food programs, is a key enabler. School gardens, farm visits, improved kitchens and extra staff all require money, but dedicating time and resources to raise additional funds is a luxury most schools cannot afford. Schools are thus very vulnerable to funding cuts at local council level, which can threaten the sustainability of projects. This meant that while a school could often engage initially in a food programme, delivering long-term impacts relies on funds it simply cannot afford.
As has been seen historically in the UK, education and within this school food is a politically volatile area. Since Jamie’s School Dinners aired in early 2005, the UK has seen 5 different governments, all with different approaches to schools, and the approach to food within them. Funding cuts to programmes such as Food For Life and the School Food Plan, as well as through local government, have meant that schools, and the children who attend them, are feeling the concrete consequences of fluctuations in high politics. Schools are a unique opportunity for policy makers to change the culture around the food we eat, and provide children from all walks of life with the tools to make informed decisions on the food they eat. Providing schools with the incentives and opportunity to build positive school food environments, and building a political framework that encourages this, has the potential to have a huge impact on how future generations engage with food.
Rab Brownell’s research 'Cultivating future diets – A study of school programmes in the UK aimed at developing sustainable diets' , looks at what effective policy in promoting sustainable diets looks like in UK schools, and how policy can address this at a national, local and school level.The research was undertaken as part of an MSc in Food Policy at City University, London.