We can’t put the school food genie back in the bottle

20 Jul 2021, 5:00

Catering firm Compass, whose subsidiary Chartwells was at the centre of the free school meal parcel fiasco, is set to repay taxpayers' furlough cash.

The pandemic has revealed systemic issues with the quality and accessibility of school food and our new working group aims to put them right, writes Nick Capstick

As we inch our way to a summer break that’s never been more richly deserved, thoughts of September are never far away. Recent announcements on the relaxation of rules make us optimistic that when we come back, somewhat refreshed, we might be able to start to move on from the pandemic. But there are some genies that can’t be put back into the bottle. One of those is around school food.

While we have undoubtedly seen so much heroic practice from schools and communities, Covid has shone a light on three systemic issues that go far beyond the issue of holiday hunger which has been the focus of so much of the discussion.

First, when children and families were facing this crisis, the eligibility criteria for free school meals meant that some of those who needed the state the most didn’t qualify for its support or hadn’t gone through the process required to claim it. Schools who know their students and families well were able to step in to bridge the gaps, but it revealed a failure in the system we can’t ignore.

Second, the quality of the food being offered across the country was not and is not consistently at the high standard that we would want to see for our own loved ones. I’m not sure many of us as school leaders could hold up a mirror to the catering provision in all our schools and say that every meal was balanced and nutritious.

There is a complex web of funding, procurement and accountability behind all of this of course, but data from the 2019 Food for Life state of the nation report suggests that 60 per cent of secondary schools weren’t meeting mandatory school food standards. That’s unlikely to have improved over the pandemic, and we should all aspire to fix it as we emerge from it.

Food environments that drive obesity went on to fuel our high pandemic mortality rates

And third, at a macro level, we saw how the food environments in our communities and on our screens that drive obesity went on to fuel the country’s high mortality rates in the first two waves of the pandemic. The latest data from 2019/2020 recorded more than one million admissions to NHS hospitals where obesity was a factor, with rates skyrocketing among school-aged children.

While our primary focus is rightly on academic catch-up, it would be easy to let school food drift somewhere down the to-do list. But if we want to see a productive, healthy generation of young people emerging from our schools – and if we are to be more resilient to future pandemics – we have to seize this moment to listen, learn and reset.

This is why I am so honoured and passionate about becoming the independent chair of a new working group building the case for a root and branch school food review.  Bringing together school food campaigners, educationalists and academic experts, Impact on Urban Health, Food Foundation, Bite Back 2030 and School Food Matters have convened this group to learn lessons, build the case for reform and demonstrate to government the costs and benefits for doing so.

The first important step for the school food review working group is to undertake a wide-ranging survey of school food stakeholders, from teachers to caterers, pupils to school business managers.  This research is being undertaken in partnership with the academics in the GENIUS network and is now live.

Only with the fullest picture will we be able to bring forward recommendations that will focus policy makers on the actions that will have the greatest impact. Combined with the recommendations of the National Food Strategy around food education, procurement, accountability and free school meal eligibility,  a compelling case for reform is building.

As teachers and school leaders, we know that with good health and nutrition come focus, learning and the greatest opportunities for success. We have the chance now to set the stage for a healthy education for every child, and they can’t afford for us to miss it.


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