Our Chief Executive, Naomi Duncan, shared her thoughts with Clemmie Telford for The Mother Of All Lists blog on how and why we need to transform food, food culture and food education in schools.
Were you horrified by the photos of food parcels delivered to children eligible for free school meals? I was.
Fruit so bruised no supermarket would stock it, peppers and tomatoes cut in half – because a whole vegetable is too generous, rations alleging to be a week’s worth of lunches that would barely make two decent meals.
In the first national lockdown last year, the images were worse – children were sent blocks of cheap cooking margarine instead of butter. Crisps and chocolate bars were a daily staple – fine as a treat but not when food at home is so scarce and nutrition is needed. It’s right to be horrified by these images – angry even.
In the world’s fifth-largest economy, how can this be the standard by which we look after our poorest kids? Sadly though, I wasn’t surprised. I’ve spent my career working in school food and this is what I’ve learned.
Inadequate school food isn’t new to lockdown. I’ve walked into schools and seen bland, processed food being served up to children to fill their bellies – and then we expect them to head to class and fill their brains.
Poverty isn’t new either – I experienced it first-hand, growing up with financial insecurity. Wearing clothes third or fourth hand from older sisters of my friends, aware of the anxiety about making rent when my dad lost a job, shamed about missing school trips because we couldn’t afford them.
But we never went without food. In fact, food sometimes turned up in unexpected places, I remember my brother unwrapping a wedge of brie as his birthday present one year. I’m still not 100% sure he wouldn’t have preferred a Walkman, but presumably, the brie was a better bargain that wouldn’t require parts replacing.
We never knew hunger, growing up in the rolling countryside, able to grow our own vegetables, buying chicken carcasses from farmers markets to turn into soups, freshly shot game dropped off by nearby neighbours – my mum grateful, if unable not to give a slight shudder knowing she’d have to prepare it.
To see how pervasive food poverty has become is soul-destroying. No child should go hungry – nor their parents for that matter. Nowadays, in inner cities particularly, hunger is pervasive. Nine children in every classroom of thirty-live below the poverty line.
On the last day of school before the first national lockdown, we had an eleven-year-old child in a school dining room in tears, because the cupboards at home were bare. She usually snuck home food from her free school meal, to feed her younger siblings and was distraught wondering how she could support them.
We think of hunger traditionally as something that leads directly to weight loss, but often what we’re seeing really is malnutrition. One in three children leave primary school obese in the poorest areas – partly because the wrong food – full of fats, sugars and salts – is cheap and easy to come by, and there are so many barriers up to accessing nutritious food.
Last year we saw levels of malnutrition in children doubled in the space of six months.
2.3 million children in the UK experienced food insecurity between March and August 2020.
Some 125,000+ children were excluded from any food support when lockdown first kicked in, due to their immigration status. The fix in place is only temporary.
All of these stats highlight a worrying problem – children are not all able to access the food that will nurture their bodies and minds.
These stats, the photos on social media, could be easily dismissed as ‘a result of these unprecedented times’ but this is symptomatic of a much wider problem of how we, as a society, prioritise and value food.
But while it can seem bleak and overwhelming – at Chefs in Schools we believe better is possible. The last twenty years have seen campaigners, teachers and charities joining together to improve school food – progress is being made in many schools.
The part we play in improving standards is hands-on. Our charity helps schools transform the food they serve – ditching packet mixes and frozen foods and replacing them with sauces and lunches made from scratch and with love. We also teach kids about eating, cooking and enjoying real food.
We believe these two approaches can help turn the tide on diet related disease. You can’t solve hunger, disease and malnutrition through food in schools, but you can have a big impact, this is why food in schools matters so much.
Our charity began to take shape when co-founder Nicole moved from being Head Chef at Ottolenghi’s NOPI to the kitchen at Gayhurst Primary School in Hackney. She introduced an incredible menu of fresh food, with traces of her Maltese heritage and her career.
It wasn’t easy – on the first week, children cried. (I’m sure this is familiar to all parents who’ve tried to feed their kids certain vegetables!) They wanted to know when the old chef was coming back.
Nicole realised if she wanted them to enjoy different food, she had to take them on the journey with her.
She hung up her apron after a kitchen shift and went into the classroom to show the kids butchery, how to cook over fire, where rice came from, what a whole fish looked like. Slowly, she won over the kids in that school and soon the adventurous kids were digging into sharing platters and egging on their mates to try.
Nowadays, we take Nicole’s experiences from Gayhurst and help other schools to do the same. More than 12,000 kids are benefitting from that work to do date.
We’re training school kitchen teams to run their kitchens with the pride and professionalism of a restaurant. Sometimes we help them hire a new Head Chef, sometimes we help them train the existing team – both methods work.
Knowing Nicole well enough now, I can say that she had no idea what she was getting into. She was born in Malta, where children went home to eat a homemade lunchtime meal. Needless to say, she was horrified by the shortcuts she found in British school kitchens and is determined to help change things.
Schools are a place of education, not just learning the three R’s, but a whole range of important life skills. How to bargain (trying to get out of detention), how to trade (switching POGS, football stickers, or whatever the kids are doing nowadays), how to share and enjoy food.
Back when I was in school, waiting for the vending machine to be vandalised by someone else so I could grab a free mars bar, being taught in ‘food technology’ how to design food packaging (and I should say, being asked not to submit my sub optimal designs so as not to bring the GCSE grading for the school down), the thought that kids would be digging into fresh veg and salads would have made me laugh.
Maybe experiences like that, are why we have such a weird relationship with food in this country. Fresh food can be considered ‘fancy’ and ‘elitist’. But teaching all kids, regardless of where they come from, how to try, cook and enjoy different foods should be considered a vital part of education too.
I don’t know about you, but when I was at school, lunch was mostly chips – with this weird runny, lumpy, gravy – followed by a cookie or chocolate bar. (I ate this a lot in secondary school. 12 year old me saw no issues with it, adult me, not so much).
Nowadays, sensible changes in legislation mean that caterers are forced to look beyond entirely empty calories and offer, at least on the face of it, fresh food.
These are hard won changes, led by pioneering campaigners. Yet, as the last few weeks have shown, we’re kidding ourselves if we think all is right in school kitchens.
I’ve spent too much of my career watching children in schools queue up to grab a plate of overcooked pasta sprinkled with processed cheese, scrape it listlessly around the plate and then queue to scrape most of it into the bin.
This isn’t an issue with one bad contractor who ends up with their name in the press. This is symptomatic of a much wider problem of how we, as a society, prioritise and value the food we serve to children.
Walk into the kitchen to meet the people who have prepared those meals, and you’ll find mums whose kids go to that same school, paid 30% less than their equivalents employed by the school, without the pensions and sick leave, sandwiching their few hours in the kitchen between cleaning jobs to make ends meet.
This workforce, at least 80% female, often on insecure zero or low hour contracts, are all too often undervalued, by their employers, their school and by all of us.
But the work they do really matters.
Children don’t learn when they’re hungry or if they’ve eaten a load of stodge. Their behaviour also suffers. Ever found yourself grouchy in the middle of a day and realised you’re having a ‘sugar crash’? Felt anxious in the middle of a stressful workday and realised you skipped lunch?
The food that a child eats in schools matters. It helps fuel their body so that their mind can learn, and for a child who is entitled to free school meals, it can be the only food they eat in that day.
We should want all children to be able to access good food through schools, whether entitled to free school meals or not.
At Chefs in Schools, we know that the food served in school can not only fill a hungry stomach but also provide an opportunity to educate and change a child’s eating habits. Good food in schools can improve attainment and behaviour, providing a more level playing field for kids from all income backgrounds.
We should be angry about those pictures. We should also look beyond them and pay attention to what they mean about food being served up in school canteens.
If the same furious scrutiny was paid to that, well… we’ve all seen the power of a Marcus Rashford intervention, backed by tens of thousands of parents demanding better. Action will follow.
You can’t solve hunger, malnutrition or child obesity with the food and food education offered in school, but you can make a damn good start.