The School Food Plan, launched last week, is a plan supported by the Secretary of State for Education, to significantly increase the number of children eating good food in schools, and to determine the role that food, cooking and growing has to play in our children’s education. The video below provides a great overview, and the website is a useful starting point for those wanting to read the full report, or get a clearer understanding of what’s in it.

It was with some anticipation in the office that we awaited the launch of this report, partly because of our commitment to developing a good food culture in the UK, and understanding that reaching children at school is a vital component for success, and partly because we know the work of the reports authors, and their genuine commitment to sustainable food values.

We are whole heartedly in agreement with most of what has been proposed. Huge congratulations must go to the reports authors for taking the time to speak to those working in the field, and for acknowledging all that they do. Key to success in this area must be to empower and support the organisations, caterers and head teachers involved in the school food system, and not impose a ‘top down’ governmental structure, increasing the requirements and work load of those already working to capacity. The connections drawn between uptake and economic viability are hugely important, as is the link between eating well and behaviour change.

I have been surprised that some of the press coverage on the report has found so much to be negative about. One Guardian article in particular, seemed to be little more than a disgruntled moan on the author’s part. A school food programme based in a few common principles about how to eat together, would help to transform the kind of food culture we can aspire to for the future. When living in Italy, my daughter ate a hot lunch at primary school each day, always consisting of a first course (carb based – pasta, risotto, gnocchi), and a second course (a piece of meat/fish with some vegetables.) All the children ate the same meal, so no choices that imply 6-7 year olds are equipped to make decisions about their own health and nutrition. All food was cooked on site by a school chef – and the entire school sat down together, with the teachers, which automatically taught the children table manners and a range of social skills, from the art of conversation, to the importance of serving others. Skills that can only be truly learnt around a dinner table.

Now back in the UK, she takes a packed-lunch to school everyday. Why? Because her school meals are made from industrially sourced ingredients, lacking in nutritional value, and provide options like pizza and chips together. Options that I wouldn’t serve at home, and which I firmly believe have long term, detrimental health impacts. At the SFT, we aim to encourage the public to demand more sustainable food options, so in what world would I encourage my daughter to go to school and eat industrialised meat, raised in factory farm conditions, containing antibiotic residues and fed on GMO soy or corn? The short answer? I wouldn’t, and wild horses couldn’t convince me to sign up to school meals until significant changes had been made to the way in which those meals were sourced and produced.

The video suggests that only 1% of packed lunches are fit for purpose from a nutrition point of view, but what about those of us who provide our children with extremely nutritious and healthy packed-lunches? If you were to make it mandatory for my child to be served school food in its current format I would not be a happy bunny. We also have to wonder at the amount of money announced by the Education Secretary to support this programme. Whilst £140 million, might sound like a lot of money, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the billions being spent to tackle obesity by the NHS. Whilst it’s positive to see any type of funding by this government into practical solutions for the future of our society, it was the last Tory government which oversaw the privatisation of the school catering industry and the removal of kitchen facilities from schools all over the country. Whilst the aspirations of cooking and good food for all are admirable and definitely desperately needed, one can’t help but wonder where all this cooking will be done, now that the kitchens have gone?

Photograph by Carl Lockey

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  • Chris Holman

    The writer of this has obviously never had a school meal , being a school dinner lady i have to say i can`t believe the twaddle in this letter, all our meat is British and all fish is from sustainable sources certified by the MSC, the children get a selection of vegetables that are in season, all our eggs are free range and all comply with government guidelines. Desserts are also healthy and nutritious and there is always a good choice, As for packed lunches , there is nothing unhealthy allowed such as sweets chocolate ect, parents are asked not to provide these. I do agree that it would be nice for the teachers to share lunch with the children, but as for having no choices only the one on offer i fear a lot of kids would go hungry, not everyone likes the same thing and everyone has a right to choice.

  • Nicky

    Unfortunately I have to agree with the author of this piece. The meals served up at our primary school are far from great. The portions are tiny and the most popular choices sell out quickly, leaving some children with no choice but a sandwich or a baked potato with just butter. I had to make packed lunches every day because when my daughter was on school dinners she would come home hungry and grumpy. She is now starting secondary school and I’m hoping things will improve, though when the children get to year 10 they have to eat outside the school as there is not enough space in the school dining room. Inevitably they all flock to Tesco’s over the road and I have seen children just eating chocolate for lunch. We live in quite an affluent area though and I’ve noticed a lot of the children making very sensible choices – choosing some cheese from the deli counter and buying a roll from the bakery. It does seem sad though that they are forced out of the school like this – it almost certainly wouldn’t happen in countries such as Italy or France where meal times are taken so much more seriously.