A whole-school approach to food and health is fundamental to establishing good dietary habits and an understanding of the links between good nutrition and future health. In this article Anna Denny shows how shools can support children in leading a healthy lifestyle.

Recent guidelines on school food

The school environment, the behaviour of staff and pupils and the messages that pupils receive through the formal curriculum all play a crucial role in influencing children’s knowledge and understanding of health and nutrition.

School food sat high on the political menu for much of 2005 and has hit the headlines again in 2006, this time in relation to food other than lunches offered at school. The government’s Healthy Living Blueprint for Schools, the infamous Jamie Oliver, and ongoing initiatives such as the Healthy Schools programme have instigated a wide range of changes in schools, both in the formal curriculum and in food and drink provision.

School lunches

In October 2005 the Secretary of State for Education published for consultation the report of the School Meals Review Panel (SMRP) on nutritional standards for school lunches, Turning the Tables: Transforming School Food (www.schoolfoodtrust.org.uk). The report lays out nutritional standards to ensure that school lunch provision contributes 40% of children’s needs for nutrients such as iron, calcium, zinc and a range of vitamins. Core recommendations of the report included 14 nutrient-based standards for school lunches and nine food-based standards which aim to maximse access to healthier foods and remove less healthy options from the lunch hall. The report recommends that the food-based standards should be met fully in all secondary schools by September 2009.

Food other than lunches offered at school

In March 2006 the newly formed School Food trust (SFT) published its recommendations to the government on guidelines for the provision of food other than lunch in schools – namely confectionery, drinks and savoury snacks sold through tuck shops and vending machines, and foods available via other school food outlets such as breakfast- and after-school clubs.

The SFT recommends in its report that the following mandatory standards should apply to all food sold in schools throughout the day:

  • no confectionery should be sold in schools
  • no bagged savoury snacks (other than nuts and seeds without added salt or sugar) should be sold in schools
  • a variety of fruit and vegetables should be available in all school food outlets (these can include fresh, dried, frozen, canned and juiced varieties)
  • there should be easy access at all times to free, fresh, preferably chilled drinking water in schools
  • the only other drinks available should be bottled water (still or sparkling), milk (skimmed or semi-skimmed), pure fruit juices, yoghurt and milk drinks (with less than 5% added sugar), drinks made from combinations of these (eg, smoothies, low-calorie hot chocolate, tea and coffee). Artifical sweeteners can be used in yoghurt and milk drinks
  • cakes and biscuits should be allowed at lunch and after school meals only and not at mid-morning break
  • every school should have a whole-school food and nutrition policy, preferably reflected in its Single School Plan.

The Trust recommends that all schools should be achieving these standards by early 2007.

Developing a whole-school food and nutrition policy

A whole-school food and nutrition policy expresses a common vision of the ethos, status and role of all aspects of food within a school, and encourages a wide range of matters relating to food to be brought together clearly, coherently and consistently. This includes not only the provision of food at school, but also the role of food in the formal curriculum and extra-curricular activities – for example, cookery clubs and school gardens. The policy also covers the environment within which food is eaten, as well as pastoral care and welfare issues, such as behaviour and free school lunches.

The development of a whole-school food policy needs to engage the entire school community, including pupils, parents, carers, governors, staff, caterers, local suppliers and others. The messages that pupils receive through their personal, social and health education are integral to equipping them with the skills necessary to make informed choices about their own diet and lifestyle. PSHE and citizenship lessons offer the chance to engage pupils in debate over the role of food in schools and allow them to voice their opinions so that they can work out what they think.

Support available to schools

The DfES/Department of Health Food in Schools Toolkit has guidance to support the development of a whole-school food policy. The resource provides practical advice on setting up healthier breakfast clubs, tuck shops, vending outlets and extra-curricular activities. The toolkit can be viewed or orderedonline at www.foodinschools.org/fis_toolkit.php Further information and resources to support teachers and pupils in schools learning about food and nutrition are available on the websites of the British Nutrition Foundation at www.nutrition.org.uk and www.foodafactoflife.org.uk

Further information

British Nutrition Foundation, High Holborn House, 52-54 High Holborn, London WC1V 6RQ. Tel: 020 7404 6504. Fax: 020 7404 6504. Email: postbox@nutrition.org.uk

Anna Denny is nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation and can be contacted at a.denny@nutrition.org.uk