An increased uptake and higher standards for school meals are enhanced by a whole-school approach, according to research by the School Food Trust, and can have a positive affect on behaviour

September 2006 saw the introduction of the government’s food-based standards for school lunches. Many schools in England are already heavily engaged in managing the successful transition of their school food provision, whilst others have been enjoying the fruits of offering healthy lunch choices for some time now.

After being provided funds to refurbish kitchen facilities, via a pilot scheme following the Jamie’s School Dinners TV programme, the number of pupils eating school dinners in Wimbledon Park Primary School has increased four-fold over the past 12 months.

Headteacher Dee Russell couldn’t be more delighted with the uptake in meals. ‘The children are much happier and so full of energy,’ she says. ‘Attention spans and concentration in the afternoon have increased and attendance at the medical centre has fallen dramatically. I have always been a great believer in the links between good nutrition and performance at school,’ she added.

Wimbledon Park’s Healthy Schools award has been renewed twice in the last four years. Since reaching this standard pupils’ behaviour, health, self-esteem and diet have all improved radically.

A grant received from the award paid for Water Aid units to provide fresh, chilled water to pupils throughout the day. Each child uses their own reusable plastic bottle to carry their water, improving education and a sense of responsibility about the importance of hydration.

Dee Russell says that she faced no resistance at all from pupils as the healthier meals were introduced, as the strategy engaged children’s involvement from the outset. ‘The children formed a council themselves and undertook a survey of what their peers would like to see on the new school menu,’ she explains.

A traffic-light system, using red, orange and green stickers, was introduced to encourage pupils to choose healthier options at lunch times. Green stickers were awarded to those who chose the most nutritious meal or brought in healthy packed lunches – and by all accounts competition was fierce!

The school’s dining room has also been refurbished, introducing colourful round tables which make lunchtimes a more sociable event.

At the School Food Trust, we appreciate that transforming school food is no quick fix and that support and advice to schools during the transition is crucial to success. In June, the trust published a guide to support the implementation of the lunch standards to assist head cooks and teaching staff. It provides menu suggestions and covers the requirements of the standards in full.

Lunch standards are at the forefront of everyone’s minds this term, but schools also must begin preparation to meet the standards for food other than lunch which come into force in September 2007. These cover food served at other times of the school day, for example, breakfast and after-school clubs, tuck shops, at mid-morning break or in vending machines.

The School Food Trust is committed to helping schools and service providers to manage this change. Guidance will be distributed to schools and catering providers later this term to help implement the changes required to meet the non-lunch standards.

One of the key aspects of making any transition in schools is the link with lessons. This is where the expertise of teachers comes in to weave the relevant learning into the curriculum through the subject areas, such as science, food technology or even maths.

Lesson plans outlining changes to school food and healthy eating messages are being developed and these, along with supporting material such as posters, are now available from the School Food Trust’s website in the autumn. This activity is underpinned by an enhanced School Food Trust website, which will offer increasing resources such as online teaching and learning resources, as well as access to helpful advice and information.

Whilst one of the trust’s key performance indicators is to increase the take-up of school meals, one strand of their parent and children and young people engagement plans is to promote healthy lunch boxes.

This approach has already been pioneered in a number of schools. It not only provides short-term health benefits for children but also means that packed lunches become less of an incentive to opt out of healthier school meals; if there are no chocolate bars or crisps in the lunch box, then the school’s own healthy offering has less unhealthy competition.

But it is clear that increasing the number of children opting for a school meal is not just a question of awareness-raising. The trust’s delivery plan includes research and capability development through its partnerships with existing initiatives, which will underpin local implementation of the standards and wider healthy schools activities.

At the heart of this is the trust’s research programme, which aims to establish the facts upon which it can build strategies for change. During the next six months, it will be carrying out research on:

  • the impact of breakfast on cognitive function
  • the impact of lunch on behaviour
  • the economic impact of healthy eating at schools, and
  • the economic and health benefits of healthy eating at school.

Results of these studies will be shared with headteachers to help inform decision-making.

The trust has recently published the results of the first piece of research into the take up of school meals, undertaken on its behalf by PriceWaterhouseCoopers. The full report is available at www.schoolfoodtrust.org.uk, but there are some interesting headlines to note.

The survey covered catering provision in around 61% of primary schools and 33% of secondary schools nationally – a roll of more than 3.5m pupils in total. It was found that the take-up of school meals in 2005-2006 was 42.3% in primary schools and 42.7% in secondary schools. This contrasts with 44.9% in both primary and secondary schools in the previous financial year, and means that 2.6% fewer primary school children and 2.2% fewer secondary school pupils are eating school meals.

When asked for reasons for the decrease in demand for school meals, local authority caterers identified the following contributory factors:

  • media coverage of school meals
  • parents’ perception of poor-quality provision
  • provision of more healthy options resulting in more packed lunches (in primary schools)
  • provision of more healthy options resulting in a rise in the number of young people buying meals elsewhere (in secondary schools).

However, although the overall figures were an initial concern, in some schools there was steady or increased demand for school meals, with local authority caterers identifying the following contributory factors:

  • whole-school approach
  • improved meal quality with no change in price
  • provision of more healthy options
  • improved or refurbished facilities, eg kitchen, dining room (in secondary schools).

This research suggests that although the provision of healthy choices may have an initial impact on school meal take-up, a holistic approach that improves the meal experience, encourages healthy packed lunches and positively promotes school food to students, has the potential to reverse this trend.

The trust is gathering more detailed case studies to demonstrate how schools have approached these issues, and will be sharing these on its website. To keep the site a live and relevant resource, the trust is asking that headteachers interested in sharing information on how they are managing the change, or with requests on how it can offer better support with any aspect of the transition, contact it via the dedicated School Food Trust helpline 0800 089 5001.

One of the key success factors in transforming school food will be developing the school food workforce. This forms a central strand of the trust’s work and it is working with the DfES, the Training and Development Agency for Schools and the QCA to further develop qualifications for those working in school food, building on the pilot Support Work in Schools qualification that had been successfully introduced in 2004.

In addition, the trust will be running a series of nine regional cooks’ conferences over the October, February and May half terms. These will bring together school cooks from across a region, highlighting the vital role they play in providing fresh, nutritious food for children and ensuring that they are fully aware of the new standards, and how to implement them successfully.

An important element of these events will be celebrating the success of the growing number of cooks who are taking the initiative to radically improve meal provision. The first three conferences will take place in October at venues in the North East, East Midlands and the South East.

As reflected in the school meals take-up research, the resources available both behind the scenes and at ‘front of house’ can be critical in determining whether school food provision improves and meal take-up increases. The trust is collating case studies and also developing projects to promote and encourage the availability and importance of fit-for-purpose resources within schools.

Working together with those at the front line of this initiative, the School Food Trust, through engagement with school cooks and teachers, will support the transition to healthier schools resulting in students who ‘Eat better, do better.’

Last September saw the introduction of the government’s food-based standards for school lunches. Many schools in England are already heavily engaged in managing the successful transition of their school food provision, whilst others have been enjoying the fruits of offering healthy lunch choices for some time now.

When Barking Abbey Comprehensive School, a specialist sports and humanities college with 1850 pupils, decided to change catering provision to offer pupils a healthy and balanced diet, improvements were made over a one-year period.

The school now operates an in-house catering system, allowing complete control over menus, making full use of local suppliers to adopt a sustainable whole- food approach, even including a local farmer as one of its governors. Fresh produce is used wherever possible, with processed food kept to a minimum. Healthy eating salad bars are now a regular feature at lunchtimes, no fizzy drinks or crisps have been sold in school for three years and students are encouraged to drink water throughout the school day.

The key to the success, according to headteacher, Mark Lloyd, is that students, parents and staff were involved in the process from start to finish, and results have been striking. No rise in meal cost was passed on to pupils, with 950-1,000 meals currently served each day at a cost of 70-90p each.

Transforming school food is no quick fix and support and advice to schools during the transition is crucial to success. In June, the School Food Trust published a guide to support the implementation of the food standards for lunch, to assist head cooks and teaching staff in this transition. It provides menu suggestions and covers the requirements of the standards in full.

Lunch standards are at the forefront of everyone’s minds this term, but schools must also begin preparation to meet the standards for food other than lunch which come into force in September 2007. These cover food served at other times of the school day, for example, breakfast and after-school clubs, tuck shops, at mid-morning break or in vending machines. The School Food Trust is committed to helping schools and service providers to manage this change and guidance will be distributed to schools and catering providers later this term to help implement the changes required meeting the non-lunch standards.

There is some concern about the loss of revenue from the switch to healthy vending, the trust has evidence of schools switching which show that changes can be made successfully although sometimes not quite as profitably.

In 2003, William Farr Senior School in Lincolnshire decided to replace its three vending machines selling fizzy soft drinks with ‘cool milk’ machines vending fresh milk, flavoured milk, yoghurt drinks, and fruit juices. Revenue from these machines has been good although, as anticipated, there has been a drop in income to the school which feels the health of its students should come first.

William Farr offers the following tips on the switch to healthy vending:

  • make it a whole-school commitment and stick with it; results take time
  • involve pupils, with guidance, rather than imposing change from the top down
  • make the financial commitment because children’s health is more important
  • engagement with parents and teaching staff is very important; explain what is happening and why it’s important
  • involve catering staff in decisions at all stages.

Further nutrient-based standards for lunch only, must be phased into secondary schools by September 2009, and supporting guidance on these will be produced by the School Food Trust in 2007.

It is clear that increasing the number of children opting for a school meal is not just a question of awareness-raising. The trust’s delivery plan includes research, and capability development, through its partnerships with existing initiatives, which will underpin local implementation of the standards and wider healthy schools activities.

One of the key success factors in transforming school food will be developing the school food workforce. This forms a central strand of the trust’s work, and working with the DfES and the Food  Standards Authority to further develop qualifications for those working in school food, it will build on the pilot Support Work in Schools qualification that was successfully introduced in 2004.

In addition, the trust will be running a series of nine regional cooks conferences over the October, February and May half terms and Easter break. These will bring together school cooks from across a region, highlighting the vital role they play in providing fresh, nutritious food for children and ensuring that they are fully aware of the new standards, and how to implement them successfully.

An important element of these events will be celebrating the success of the growing number of cooks who are taking the initiative to radically improve meal provision and promote a self-managed network.

As reflected in the school meals take-up research, the resources available both behind the scenes and at ‘front of house’ can be critical in determining whether school food provision improves and meal take-up increases.

Working together with those at the front line of this initiative, the School Food Trust, through engagement with school cooks and teachers, will support the transition to healthier schools resulting in students who ‘eat better, do better’.

www.schoolfoodtrust.org.uk

Food-based standards in a nutshell

The food-based standards for school lunches require maintained schools in England to ensure that children are offered a portion of fruit and a portion of vegetables daily, regular portions of oily fish and healthier drinks. 

Confectionery cannot be served at lunchtimes – this includes all chocolate products, chocolate-coated bars and biscuits, cereal bars, processed fruit bars and yogurt-coated or chocolate-coated fruit.

Cakes, puddings, biscuits (including those using cocoa powder) and ice cream can be served as part of a meal, following the main course.

Savoury snacks such as crisps are no longer available, but nuts and seeds with no added fat, salt or sugar can be offered as a healthy alternative.

Drinks Pupils must have access to free, fresh drinking water throughout the day, and other healthier drink options such as skimmed or semi-skimmed milk, pure fruit juices and low sugar milk and yoghurt drinks can be made available.

By Justina Frost and Alison Parr

Category:
depl678-20