What do we make of The School Food Plan?

The long-awaited School Food Plan is out and I think it has lots to commend it.

Unfortunately, the recommendation to ban packed lunches has been the only aspect to really receive much media attention. While I have serious reservations about this issue myself, I think there is much to be commended in this plan and I think we would do well to focus on the positives in it. (More about packed lunches later).

I don’t think any of us in the school meals industry need be very surprised by the findings of the report. National school meal take-up rates are low (average 43%), most packed lunches are not healthy, kids need to learn about and become more actively involved in cooking. All those things we knew, but it’s good to see them flagged up in this high profile way.

It’s also good to see strong recommendations being put forward. I think the move to make cooking a more discrete part of the National Curriculum is interesting.

Certainly, the thinking here ties in with Cucina’s own company strategy, which has always been to integrate our food services into the broader educational life of the school. A new and broader food curriculum would provide us with further opportunities for educational partnership and add strength to our work as educators.

Breakfast Club as a way of providing a nutritious start to the school day is a concept we’ve long believed in and implemented. Similarly, extending the food service after school to provide tasty nourishing items for students who might otherwise be tempted by less healthy options on the way home. We see it as our responsibility to provide good food for the whole day, not just at lunchtime.

It is interesting to see the proposal to extend Free School Meals. The problem with this is that, for a variety of reasons, an ever-growing number of students eligible for free school meals do not take up the option. This is the issue that has to be addressed.

To avoid stigma and provide equal opportunity for all, we allow our free school meal students to choose their free items from across the entire range of food on offer. There is a complex issue here which needs careful thought before we start making plans to universalise free school meals.

I am pleased to see that The School Food Plan has been working with the Medical Research Council to develop a simpler set of food standards. The absolute key bit for me is the phrase “…which will be easier to implement and enforce.” This was always the problem with the existing food standards. I am looking forward to seeing these in more detail, along with the proposals for enforcing them.

And so, onto the packed lunches debate.

Yes, we all know that the vast majority of packed lunches are lacking in nutritional value. But then, that is also true of too much school food. While there are pockets of excellence around, there is still a long way to go before we can say that the state of school food is fantastic across the board.

The healthiest choice for many parents is still the packed lunch option, so let’s not take that away from them. Bans are a way to try and make things happen by force. It is far better, surely – and our 66% average school meal uptakes back this up – to make school food so attractive and delicious that young people will want to eat it. In the meantime, I would urge the good work to continue so that healthy school meals become the norm everywhere.

I am pleased that we have had some limited input into John and Henry’s work on their School Food Plan and we will certainly do all we can to help them in this important work on behalf of the adults of tomorrow.

For now though, happy eating and have a great summer!

Sam

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