A school food revolution for pupils starts with us

Students have ants in their pants about sustainability - and there’s plenty we can do on food before putting ants in their stomachs

Students have ants in their pants about sustainability - and there’s plenty we can do on food before putting ants in their stomachs

4 Dec 2023, 5:00

One aspect of the climate change agenda that is often discussed is the sustainability of food resources and demand. Within a school and trust, there are decisions leadership can make which model to the pupils what differences a considered approach to diet can make.

The first step, of course, is to make it a priority. If contracting out, make it part of your specification and if in-house, make it part of your core mission. In any area of activity, sustainability should not be a bolt-on but a way of thinking and working.

To do that, sustainable thinking needs to be woven into the way a service is designed and delivered from the start. For a contracted-out service, that means making it part of the procurement process from the outset, so that suppliers are obliged to offer sustainable solutions as a key commercial consideration. That means linking it to contract KPIs to follow through and monitor performance.

In our trust’s case, we expressed this through our own ethical food charter, drawn up with students and included in the trust specification for the selection of a catering partner. For in-house services, the mechanism may be different, but the principle is the same: build sustainability into the mission of the catering service from the start.

The second step is to make food sustainability consumer-driven. The fiercest advocates for sustainable approaches to food production are children and young people themselves. They care passionately about this agenda and, as consumers, they vote with their feet when they see something which offends this core principle, be that unnecessary use of single-use plastics, excessive food miles or needless waste. And if voting with their feet means falling uptake of school meals, caterers must take heed.

The way to drive forward the sustainability agenda, therefore, is to create channels for their voices to be heard. This could include regular student forums with meal providers, for example, or collaboration with school eco-clubs where they exist.

Aligning sustainability with other drivers is imperative

Within our trust, we are fortunate that we are also able to make connections with other student-led environmental activism in school. Our staff work with gardening clubs to use school-grown vegetables in catering projects, bringing to life the concept of food provenance in school.

Of course, it would be naïve to pretend finances are irrelevant in these decisions. Aligning sustainability with other drivers – especially cost – is imperative for any school or trust. Ultimately, there is no denying that catering services must pay their way, and currently these are difficulty times for the school catering sector.

The wider cost-of-living crisis means that parents and families are facing a squeeze on household budgets, so it’s important to keep meal prices as low as possible. Simultaneously, the same economic pressures have driven up costs, not least in food prices themselves. Food inflation for some ingredients has been over 20 per cent. Keeping meals affordable in this context is hard, but sustainability doesn’t have to mean extra expense. In fact, quite the opposite.

The most effective response is to find spaces where these agendas cross over. For example, additional meat-free days can make for cheaper options, hitting two targets in one. But it requires imagination too. In our case, we are lucky to have access to development chefs who explore ways to make greater use of plant-based ingredients which are often inherently more sustainable, offer excellent nutritional value and are cheaper.

Our trustee, Leigh Hoath recently presented us with another option. Some schools in Wales have begun exploring and evaluating insect protein as their meat alternative. A study identified the barriers students faced in adopting such an approach, none of them insurmountable.

We haven’t yet gone down that road, but the most encouraging aspect of that study is the willingness of children and young people to engage and to challenge their assumptions about food.

So whether it’s insect protein or any other measure, the keys to sustainable food in schools are clear: educating young people, and giving them the tools to lead change.

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