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How to campaign for better school food

Laura Sevier

25th March, 2010

All you need to know to get fresher, healthier and greener food into your child's school - from nurseries to primary and secondary schools

If you're a parent and you're worried about school food then you'll be encouraged to know that the power to change the menu is in your hands. Stephanie Wood, campaign director of School Food Matters, has these 12 tips:-

1. Go and have lunch with your child at school - does it look, taste and smell nice? If you don't like what you see, take photos and tell other parents!

2. Ask the school's caterer to tell you all about their sourcing. If they're doing good work, they'll be keen to tell you about it, if not, find out why.

3. Measure your school food against Sustain's 7 Principles for Sustainable Food - what can your school do better?

4. Get your school to form a SNAG (Schools Nutrition Action Group) to give the real customers (the children) a voice.

5. If you're not happy with the meal service at your school, find a school that's doing it really well and learn how they transformed their service.

6. If your school is serviced by a local authority contract and you're not happy, write to your council's cabinet member for education and get your friends to do the same.

7. Likewise, if you're not happy with the way school food is being sourced, write to your council's sustainability unit. They should have a food policy and you may need to spill the beans on a contract that might have slipped below their radar!

8. Encourage your school to grow veg and ask the school cook to prepare something that can be 'featured' on that days menu. Schools in London get support through Capital Growth but there are lots of other national food growing initiatives.

9. Likewise, produce grown at school can be used for cooking classes. Secondary schools have cooking in their curriculum - why not grow the ingredients? If your primary school isn't doing cooking in schools, why not volunteer to help? You can get cash support from Let's Get Cooking.

10. Find a farmer! They are hundreds of farmers out there wanting to share their wisdom. Organise a school trip to a farm so they can see where their food comes from. If you've got a good caterer, ask them to recommend one of their growers to host the visit. They might even help out with transport costs.

11. If you're feeling really ambitious, visit one of the 76 school farms in the UK and find out if you can grow your own school meals.

12. Visit the School Food Matters website and find some great growing ideas, cooking ideas and follow all the links to organisations that can help you.

Lastly, a word of advice from Jackie Schneider, founder of Merton Parents for Better Food in Schools (a campaign group that succeeded in transforming school meals in Merton):

'If you approach the school in a friendly way it's easier. It doesn't take very many of you. Two parents can make a significant difference - and if you're thinking of it the chances are other parents are too.'

Progress so far...

Primary and secondary schools

The importance of healthy school meals has been well documented (for a summary see here). In recent years, thanks to campaigns such as Sustain's Children's Food Campaign and Jamie Oliver's School Dinners there has been considerable improvement to some aspects of children's food.

Since the establishment of the School Food Trust, a Non-Departmental Public Body, in 2005, new standards for the type and nutritional quality of school food have been introduced in primary and secondary schools. They include:

  • national nutritional standards
  • increased investment in facilities and training
  • junk food removed from school vending machines
  • compulsory cooking lessons for 11-14 years olds from 2011.

 

However, there is still room for improvement. School food campaign groups are pushing for:

  • kitchens capable of cooking fresh and healthy food from scratch (rather than re-heating ingredients)
  • school meal providers to supply food from local and sustainable sources
  • cooking and food growing programmes
  • a link with a local farm
  • a better lunchtime environment (instead of crowded canteens, long queues, food running out).

 

Transforming school food culture

These are not just ideas. ‘Schools are doing this already, showing it can be done. There is evidence it needn't cost much money,' says Emma Hockridge from the Soil Association which leads the Food for Life Partnership. Food for Life is a network of schools and communities across England committed to 'transforming school food culture one school at a time'. It currently works with 1,800 schools (150,000 pupils) and is expanding very quickly. Hockridge emphasises it includes 'a range of different schools - not just the obvious ones'.


 

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Its policy report is calling on the Government to adopt 'Six Steps to Transform School Food Culture'.

'We are proving it can be done, ahead of the policy curve,' says Hockridge. 'The Government is quite far behind on this.'

The Food for Life Partnership calls for fresh, seasonal, local and organic meals and encourages pupils and their parents in cooking, growing and farm visits. All schools in England can join the Partnership which offers an action framework and award scheme.

Take a look at the parent action guide - ‘Calling all parents' which gives parents advice on how to get involved in the Food for Life partnership and push for a transformation of the food culture in at your child's school.

Check the website to find out if the school is already involved, and for more information, case studies and to watch food related films on 'FoodTube'.

Nurseries

The Better Nursery Food Now campaign, run by The Soil Association and funded by Organix, launched a report this week calling for the introduction of mandatory standards to ensure high quality food is served in all nurseries.

In England and Wales, there are over 600,000 children at nursery for up to ten hours a day. In many cases, nurseries are responsible for the majority of a child's daily food during the working week. Almost one in four children (22.8 per cent) starts school already overweight or obese.

However, unlike in primary and secondary schools, there is:

• No compulsory training for staff serving food
• No clear nutritional standards
• No agency to monitor the quality of food provided
• No Government department giving a lead or promoting good practice
• No Government funding available to help nurseries improve provision.

According to the Better Nursery Food Now survey of parents conducted by Mumsnet in February 2010, nine out of ten parents (89 per cent) want to see legally enforceable rules for the nutritional standards of food in nurseries.

The survey found that only a third (34 per cent) of parents said they were happy with the food at their nursery. Around one in six (16 per cent) complained that the standard of food at their child's nursery was poor, with children being given junk food, too many convenience foods and not enough fruit and vegetables.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families last week announced plans to review food standards in nurseries and will report in September.

Take action

To sign the Better Nursery Food Now's online petition demanding better nursery food, to email your MP to ask them to sign the petition, and for guidance for those concerned about their child's nursery food visit www.nurseryfood.org

Laura Sevier is the Ecologist's Green Living Editor

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