When our children start school, we are no longer responsible for the food they eat during school time but we still care. Stephanie Wood, founder of the charity, School Food Matters, shares her views on the importance of teaching children about healthy food choices within school and beyond.
“At School Food Matters we receive lots of calls from parents who are anxious about the quality of the food on offer at their child’s school. The first question we ask is “have you been in for lunch?”
As a parent I’m fully aware of the hyperbole employed by children to describe school meals – from “The sausages were completely raw and disgusting” to “My lunch was soooo tiny I’m literally starving”. Add to that your own memories of luncheon meat fritters, soggy veg and lumpy custard and that’s enough to make you cautious at best, and quite probably terrified by the prospect of school meals.
But school meals have come a long way since 2005 when Jamie Oliver exposed the horror of the turkey twizzler. In the nine years since School Food Matters was born – out of one parent’s desire to transform school food in one London primary school – the school food landscape has completely changed. In 2012 we were proud to be invited to help shape the School Food Plan; the Department for Education’s action plan to improve school meals. The Plan was published in 2013 and with it came a commitment to mandatory school food standards, cooking on the curriculum and later Universal Infant Free School Meals.
The School Food Plan gives us a great framework and excellent resources to work with but throughout the process we all agreed that ‘excellence does not come through government decree’. Radical change often comes through grassroots action or what we like to call ‘parent power’. This is where you come in and why we encourage all parents to go on a fact- finding mission to get to the truth about school meals. Here are some tips to be you started:
- When talking to your school about food, always offer your help and support rather than presenting them with a problem. Tell them you have a special interest and would love to come and have lunch to see if there’s anything you can do to help make the service even better. Schools are busy places and will welcome support but may be less eager to engage with a combative approach.
- When booking your lunch, don’t forget to pay. There will be an adult price for the meal. The government funds school meals for infants but not for parents!
- When you finally sit down for lunch, ask some simple questions; does it look, taste and smell nice? Take photos so that you can share your findings – good or bad – with other parents.
- Have a look at the dining room as well as the food. Don’t be a queue jumper! Stand in line and see how long it takes to get served. Does the food run out? Is it served with a smile? Is there somewhere to sit and enjoy your food without feeling rushed or overwhelmed and are you eating off a plate rather than a prison tray. Remember this is lunchtime not the feeding frenzy of a discount airline!
- Ask the school’s caterer to tell you all about the sourcing of ingredients. If they’re doing good work, they’ll be keen to tell you about it. Does your caterer have a Food for Life Catering Mark? Do the meals meet the bronze criteria as a minimum standard?
- However good your school meals, there’s always room for improvement. Find out if your school has a SNAG – Schools Nutrition Action Group. This will give the real customers, the children, a voice and the group will act as a useful monitoring service. Make sure the group includes someone from the catering team and from the school’s leadership team so that good ideas get turned into action.
- If you’re not happy with the meal service at your school, find a school in your neighbourhood that’s doing it really well and learn how they transformed their service. Organise a visit and take your head, school governor, or a senior member of staff to show them what can be done.
If you’re looking for inspiration you can read the School Food Matters story here. It tells the tale of how school food in 30 primary schools was transformed from frozen ready meals to fresh food cooked on site meeting the Gold Catering Mark standards – and the transformation was driven by parents just like you!”
School Food Matters
School Food Matters (SFM) is a registered charity. Our mission is to ensure that every child enjoys fresh sustainable food at school and understands where their food comes from. To achieve this we listen to and involve parents, children and schools. We work together to improve school meals and support food education through cooking, growing and visits to farms. Since 2007 SFM’s food education programmes have reached tens of thousands of children across London and beyond.