Food education: a legacy for children’s health

Concern is rising over the level of obesity in our children not least because they may become the first generation to have a shorter lifespan than their parents. There are now more than 3.2 million people diagnosed with type two diabetes in the UK and this figure is set to rise. In recent months concerns have been raised about levels of fat and sugar in foods. Neil Lovell, CEO of the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, argues that it is time for government, parents and the food industry to take a lead in promoting food education in schools.

Photo credit: Anja King

It seems odd to have to explain why learning about food, where it comes from and how it affects our bodies is so essential. Aside from the clear health benefits of cooking from scratch and knowing what you are actually eating, who wants to be reliant upon highly processed or junk food.

Over the years access to food education in schools has declined dramatically; from the days of home economics in the 70s to where we are today, there has barely been a shred of evidence of real food education available to any but the most progressive schools. This is not a problem unique to the UK. Look around the world and you will see little evidence of curriculum time given to learning about this essential and vital life skill.

Despite the hitherto lack of national and governmental leadership in this area, the value of teaching children early on has been espoused for many years by pioneers such as Stephanie Alexander in Australia and Alice Waters in the USA, both of whom have imaginatively and consistently brought the power of food education to life, sharing their love of growing and cooking and demonstrating how it can strengthen learning across subjects as diverse as mathematics and geography to literature and science.

School Food Plan

For some of these reasons, the design of the School Food Plan in the UK, an incredibly well thought out and comprehensive roadmap to better food education and food standards in schools, is a vital and significant step in the right direction. And parents want it too. In 2012 a survey found that 98% of parents believed that children should learn to cook.

The link to better food knowledge at an early age and creating habits that encourage cooking from scratch is strong. The facts on childhood obesity are also startling – over 25% of British children enter primary school overweight or obese, and this rises to one in three by the time they enter secondary school.

The perfect storm of declining food knowledge and increasing dependency on processed and fast foods needs to be dealt with urgently unless we want to consign our children to a life less healthy and shorter than previous generations, notwithstanding the crippling effect this would have on an already stretched NHS which already spends over £5bn a year on treating diet related illness.

The School Food Plan is comprehensive. One of the most tangible pieces of the plan – a change to the curricula which means that key stage 1-3 children will learn about food, where it comes from and how to cook it – will be implemented in September 2014. By the time children reach the age of 14 they should have the confidence to cook a range of nutritious, fresh dishes, and have a better knowledge about food so that they can make informed choices for the rest of their lives.

In parallel the revolution in school catering, which started in 2006 after Jamie Oliver highlighted the dire state of what was on offer, is stepping up with new food standards and greater focus on showing how much better school food is now. With only 1% of lunch boxes being nutritionally sound, it is time to let parents know that the school lunch is the best and healthiest choice for their child.

What is good about the plan is that it takes an holistic view of the food culture in schools and gives real guidance, and practical ideas garnered from experiences of schools up and down the country. Yes, there are some challenges for smaller schools in implementing the changes but there is also help to manage this.

The goal of better school food and better informed children, who will become healthier adults, must surely be worth the effort. School cooks continue to be at the frontline when it comes to providing nutritious and tasty food that children and teachers will eat and enjoy which is why the School Food Plan has incorporated their views in the new food-based standards that limit certain poor foods in favour of healthier options and give clearer choice and variety for cooks.

Encouraging signs

At the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, in our own work in schools where we help teachers to bring food education to life through easy to use recipes and lesson plans, the results are significant. Teachers regularly feedback that children are trying foods they would never have tried before. The impact on other curriculum areas is clear to see and the joyful noise at the school gates with children showing their parents what they have cooked is both exciting and incredibly encouraging.

Where we see this at its best is when the whole school integrates food growing, food education and the food served in the school dining room. Greater concentration after a more balanced and nutritious school lunch is a key outcome. Additionally, the effects of hands-on learning, such as the skills needed to cook, can improve behaviour from challenging pupils.

As the plan comes into being, everyone will be looking at how it can help to increase attainment and create more harmony in the classroom. The addition of Universal Free School Meals is also bringing additional benefits of social cohesion and reducing stigma often associated with having a two-tiered payment for school meals. In fact, based on evidence of UFSM trials in Durham, Newham and Wolverhampton, the benefits included an uptake of school meals and more consumption of vegetables at lunchtime.

Packed lunches declined as did the consumption of soft drinks and crisps. There were improvements in academic achievements as well and perhaps one of the more uplifting aspects was the increase in social cohesion and removing the haves and have-nots based on family income.

Maintaining momentum

The effort and energy put into school food and food education since 2006 is considerable. It’s imperative that the momentum and principles of the School Food Plan are upheld, not just by the current government but by future ones. The SFP is a worthy goal and should be the minimum standard we should be demanding of both current and future Education Secretaries.

Too much is at stake to contemplate going back to the dark days of school food and a lack of respect for the value of food education. In the fight against obesity and declining public health, food education is a vital weapon that everyone can embrace and it should start at as early an age as possible.

All we need now is someone in government, the food industry and the manufacturers, to step up and take responsibility for the decline in public health and the rise in the not overly snappily titled NCDs (non-communicable diseases) and take action to improve the situation. This collection of health time bombs is no legacy for our children and our children’s children.

Neil Lovell: CEO Jamie Oliver Food Foundation

Registered charity: 1094536

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