At the Child Food Trust conference in London last Tuesday, a group of eleven to thirteen year olds from foster homes served up their own home-cooked blinis to 200 people. It’s one example, says chairman Rob Rees, of the success of the Trust’s Let’s Get Cooking clubs that have taught two and half million UK children how to cook and eat healthier food.

“We’ve spent two years trying to get the message across to people about childhood nutrition and it’s been so depressing. We felt we were alone in the wilderness. Now all of sudden there’s a lot of more talk about food poverty – we’ve had the conference, the School Food Review, The Lottery giving forty million to food and health projects. It’s becoming trendy because people are realising what a difference it can make. Now we have to get it right” says Rees.

Getting it right has never been more important. Despite being the seventh richest country in the world, YouGov and the University of Sterling statistics released last month showed that up to 1.5 million UK children are regularly going hungry.  The Child Food Trust figures show that 85 percent of professionals are seeing children who don’t have enough to eat. As well as going hungry, the food that UK children are eating is of such poor quality, Rees says, that we are suffering from a nutritional recession.

Rees believes the key to improving our children’s diet lies, in part, in improving the school meal system, ensuring that children eat more nutrient dense foods, more regularly. At present, only around 40% of UK school children have school meals compared to the US where the figure is double that. Also, US school children benefit from food being offered at breakfast, after school and in the holidays as well.

The government is trying to address this issue with the School Food Plan, a review of the school meals system led by chefs Henry Dimbleby and Jon Vincent. Among their recommendations is the banning of packed lunches in order to lower the amount of junk food and improve the up-take of school meals. However, such changes would need to go hand-in-hand with an overhaul of the dinners currently served up in school canteens across the country, which still include too much processed food and food that kids just won’t eat.

David Payne is someone who knows about the reaction school dinners can cause better than most. His nine-year-old daughter, Martha, caused an international stir last year when she started a blog complaining about the quality and quantity of the lunchtime meals at her primary school in Scotland. The photographs and accompanying copy quickly attracted millions of followers who also took the opportunity to send in their photos of substandard school meals. Martha wrote, “the good thing about [the] blog is Dad understands why I am hungry when I get home.”

As a result, Martha’s school meals were improved by including unlimited fruit and vegetables, and she also raised £130,000 for a school meals programme in Africa. Talking at the Child Food Trust conference, David Payne, who runs a smallholding in the West of Scotland said all children should be encouraged to blog about food. “Martha would tell me how much she didn’t like her meals but I wasn’t listening. When I saw it, I thought ‘I wouldn’t want to eat that.’ It just wasn’t of a quality I was expecting.”

Martha is lucky that she comes from a family who have taught her to cook at home. She and her siblings take turns to make one meal every two weeks, often using ingredients that have been grown or reared on their land. However, millions of children still don’t know the importance of nutrition, which is why Education Minister Michael Gove, has agreed to introduce cooking classes into schools by 2014.

This is the first time cooking will be a compulsory part of the secondary school curriculum and campaigners are hopeful it will go a long way in teaching children about the benefits of eating well. It is hoped that the classes would mean that every child in Britain could leave secondary school able to cook at least 20 nutritionally balanced meals. As simple as it sounds, such a change in education policy could redress the nutritional deficit many of our children suffer from in as little as a generation.

However, many childhood nutrition experts feel that learning to cook isn’t the only change needed to get children eating better food. If we want children to eat vegetables, they need know where they come from. Claire Rosling is the Community Engagement officer at The Community Farm, a CSA outside Bristol. She runs an education programme to encourage children to grow food themselves.

“A field is a much more interesting place to be than a classroom. If you get a child growing a vegetable from seed and they have nurtured it and planted it out and harvested it, then they feel proud of their achievements,” says Rosling. “If you get a child to grow kale, they will eat kale.”

The Community Farm has started a seed project with local primary schools to encourage them to grow food in their gardens. Rosling would like to see such initiatives rolled out on a national level. “Nutrition shouldn’t just be an add on,” says Rosling, “it should be worked into the whole curriculum. Through food, you can teach science, geography, even history. We need to catch kids before they’re 11 if we have any chance of changing the food culture in this country.”

For the first time in years, it looks like politicians and potential funders are now prepared to listen to such comments. Lets hope the momentum continues.

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