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How sustainable food improves school performance

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Emily Angle Emily Angle | 12:15 UK time, Thursday, 24 November 2011

Radio 4’s Food and Farming awards were held last night at the NEC in Birmingham. As a parent of a child just starting school, I was delighted that the Food for Life Partnership  won the Derek Cooper award - for the individual or organisation doing most to bring about real change in our relationship with food.  Kevin Morgan, professor of governance and development at Cardiff University, who nominated the programme described it: "The most ambitious programme in the UK to date ...which champions a whole-school approach and is working with over 4,200 schools in England to enable children to eat good food, learn where it comes from, how it is produced and how to grow it and cook it themselves."

So how has teaching children about sustainable, local and organic food in this way helped address growing health and social issues and the rising cost of food?  And is it promising a food culture we can’t afford?

Emma Noble accepts the Derek Cooper award from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.


Emma Noble accepts the Derek Cooper award from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

The campaign’s goals are clear: “Getting schools involved in cooking and growing activities, visiting farms and serving healthy school meals.” There is a clear set of criteria for school meals to meet if they are to be awarded accredited status – they must be freshly prepared and locally sourced. Surprisingly, there are no additional nutrition-based criteria for schools to meet when they enrol in the programme. However, the quality of the food and the eating experience (insisting on plates, rather than plastic trays) seems to raise expectations and standards that translate into healthier eating.

If the food must be local and seasonal, it follows that it will be varied and fresh. If the meat must be Freedom Food certified or free-range, e.g. more expensive, there will probably be less meat and more vegetables served.  And through farm visits and exposure to fruits and vegetables in the garden -  away from the dinner table battleground – uptake of fruit and vegetables is on the rise, with the number of kids eating their five-a-day up 28%. Cooking skills is another key part of the programme – getting kids skilled up to make use of the fresh food coming in.

The evidence of its success is breathtaking. The National Foundation for Educational Research’s independent evaluation of the scheme found that, “As a result of FFLP, interviewees reported that the improved quality of meals, increased school meal uptake and improvements to the social cohesion at school had contributed to improvements in pupils’ attainment and behaviour.”  Twice as many primary schools have an Ofsted ‘outstanding’ rating after they have joined the scheme. Money is being generated for the local economy, instead of disappearing into multi-national food business.

But as always cost is still an major issue. The price, availability and sourcing of both local and organic produce was mentioned by many catering staff and programme coordinators as major challenges. And extra funding was required by almost all participating schools to make the programme work – money that will increasingly be difficult to secure. The lottery funding for the entire programme - £16.9m over its first five years - is finishing at the end of this year.

The current government is unlikely to come up with the money for such a hands-on project. From the re-focussing of the Food Standards Agency in 2010, removing any food labelling or nutritional guidance remit, to this week’s quiet disbanding of the advisory group set up to tackle the obesity crisis, it has put its faith in a self-regulating industry to nudge people to make healthier choices of food. Its own similarly titled Change4Life campaign budget has been slashed for 2011/12, but still receives £8.5m annually. Means employed have included vouchers for fruit and veg in ASDA, television ads telling people to eat smaller portions, and something called a ‘fun generator’.

Will this approach be as effective? Too early to say here in the UK but across the pond the US government has caused controversy among nutritionists and real food campaigners by bowing to pressure from processed food industry lobbyists, namely The American Frozen Food Institute. The Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act passed on Tuesday blocks reforms to school meals that would have discounted the minimal amount of tomato puree found on a pizza as a vegetable. Yes, you heard. Pizza is a vegetable.

While it appears that Food for Life has been very successful, it’s facing a tough future.  It’s advocating everything the government is cutting. And the perceived effort and cost is daunting to schools under pressure. But the alternative may prove more costly in the long run.

What do you think of the Food for Life approach? Would you participate in your local school’s programme?


  • Comment number 1.

    Anything that encourages children to "eat good food, learn where it comes from, how it is produced and how to grow it and cook it themselves" must be a good thing! And if it helps with attainment so much the better.

  • Comment number 2.

    We are so pleased that the benefits of good, home-made and now home-grown food are being exposed this way. It's a drum we've been beating for a while now (including when Hugh F-W published his packed lunch book a couple of years ago) together with the likes of StartUK, one of the Prince's Trust Charities. But as well as the nutritional & performance benefits of home-grown, home-made food there are other underlying benefits. For example, its proven that there are micro-organisms in the soil that help alleviate depression and aid relaxation... to say nothing of the outdoor exercise and fresh air. This must be a big contributor to some of the success of these school programmes. We've written about this at (search for 'soil' to get the post). This is beginning to feel like a curriculum issue. What does anyone else feel?


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