3 key areas of focus for improving school food provision

The School Food Plan is an agreed plan that has the support of the Secretary of State for Education and of the diverse organisations who are supporting headteachers to improve food in their schools. Published by the Department for Education, it sets out 17 actions to transform what children eat in schools and how they learn about food. This article is taken from pages 135-137 of the final version of the plan.

We know how busy schools are. The idea of turning round your food service – or merely nudging it from good to great – may seem daunting. So we want to make it as easy as possible for you. What follows is a checklist of all the things we know make a big difference to take-up and food culture in schools.

Obviously, not all of these actions are your responsibility; they can be shared across the school. Some are best done by the school cook, business manager, senior management team, or your external catering company. This checklist is designed to be printed out and pinned up in your office, in the office of your business manager and in the school kitchen.

We have categorised the actions based on the things we have observed that all schools with a good food culture do well:

  1. They concentrate on the things children care about: good food, attractive environment, social life, price, and brand.
  2. They adopt what is often called a ‘whole-school approach’. This is a simple idea, but an important one. It means treating the dining hall as an integral part of the school, where children and teachers eat; lunch as part of the school day; the cooks as important staff members; and food as a vital element of school life.
  3. They have a head teacher who leads the change.

1 – Give children what they care about

A. Food

  • Eat in the canteen often. Ask yourself whether the food looks appetising and tastes good.
  • Be sure there is a mix of familiar and new foods for the children, and that the catering staff encourage children to experiment.
  • Use local and seasonal suppliers, and make a song and dance about it. Children and their parents find the idea of local produce exciting (especially when it comes from the school garden), and are more likely to try it. On fish, avoid the worst (Marine Conservation Society red list), and promote the best (MCS green list which includes Marine Stewardship Council certified fish).
  • Manage children’s choices to ensure they get a balanced meal, instead of stuffing themselves full of bread rolls. Offer a cheaper ‘set menu’ meal; require children to fill their plates with options from different categories; or simply put vegetables on their plates.
  • Make sure packed lunches are not a ‘better’ option. Ban sugary drinks, crisps and confectionery, or offer prizes and other incentives for bringing in a healthy lunch. Some schools ban packed lunches outright. If you want to do this, try starting with your newest intake (pupils in reception or Year 7). The ban will then apply to all the years that follow them, until it extends to the whole school.
  • Watch what gets served at mid-morning break. Many children eat their main meal at this time. Too often, that means filling up on pizza, paninis or cake.
  • Ensure tap water is widely available at all times, make it the drink of choice across the school and encourage all children to keep well hydrated.

B. Environment

  • Look around your dining hall. Is the room clean and attractive? Does it smell good?
  • Keep queuing times short. Try staggering lunch breaks; introducing more service points; serving food at the table, family-style; and reducing choice.
  • Have a cashless payment system. This shortens queuing times, enables parents to go online to see what their children are eating, and prevents FSM children being stigmatised.
  • Replace prison-style trays with proper crockery.

C. Social life

  • Have a stay-on-site rule for break and lunch time.
  • Allow all children to sit together – don’t segregate those with packed lunches.
  • Structure the lunch break so there is sufficient time for eating as well as activities or clubs. This may mean making the lunch break longer or timing the clubs differently.
  • Give special consideration to the youngest children at secondary schools, who might be intimidated by the noise and rush of lunch break.

D. Get the price right

  • Consider subsidising school meals for your reception, Year 1 or Year 7 classes for the first term. Children who start eating school lunches often carry on, even once they have to pay.
  • Offer lunch discounts for parents with more than one child at the school, or whose children eat a school lunch every day.

E. Improve the brand

  • Encourage teachers to eat in the dining room with the children. It may require a cultural or logistical shift, but every single good school we visited did this. It has a unifying effect on the whole school, and raises the status of school meals.
  • Make menus available in advance to children and parents online.
  • Offer samples of the food for children to taste.
  • Hold themed events – such as World Cup day, or international food day – to get the children excited.
  • Organise a group to represent children’s views on school lunch, such as a school nutrition action group (SNAG) or a School Council.
  • Give children opportunities to prepare, cook or serve the food.

2 – Adopt a ‘whole school’ approach

  • Treat lunchtime as part of the school day, your canteen as an extra classroom and your cooks and lunchtime supervisors as key members of staff, on a par with teachers and business managers. Do they come to staff meetings? Do they enter and leave by the same door as the rest of your staff? Have they received training and development recently?
  • Bring your school cook to parents’ evenings – not to serve the food, but to answer questions from parents about their children’s eating habits.
  • Make sure children get consistent messages about nutrition in lessons and at lunchtime.
  • Choose classroom rewards for children that are not sweets.
  • Grow food in your school, and use some in the school lunch.
  • Use cooking and growing as an exciting way to teach subjects across the curriculum – from history to maths, science to enterprise, technology to geography.
  • Offer after school cooking lessons for parents and children.

3 – Leadership

A. Get the community involved

  • Give parents, carers and grandparents the opportunity to taste school food and eat with the children at lunchtime and/or parents’ evenings.
  • Invite family members to help with cooking or gardening clubs.
  • Seek out partners in the community who can help with cooking and growing activities e.g local restaurants, food producers, allotment growers.
  • Get local chefs in to teach in your school.

B. Get the right contract – drawing up a new contract is a risky time for your school food service, but also a moment of opportunity

  • Don’t draw up a new contract alone – lots of other schools have done this before you, and found ways to get a good deal. Use an expert to help you draft it.
  • Ask your caterer to draw up a clear, written plan for increasing take-up over a set period.
  • Make it a contractual requirement for your caterer to achieve a certain standard of quality, as judged by an external organisation – e.g. Food for Life Partnership or Children’s Food Trust.
  • Get specialist help. For details of organisations that can help you with contracts, cookery lessons, gardening or any other aspect of this checklist, go to the School Food Plan’s website.

Download your free copy of the School Food Plan here.

Facilitated by the School Food Plan, over 40 expert organisations have come together to produce a free training resource to help all school staff understand the importance of a good school food culture and to support them to deliver improvements in pupil health and wellbeing. The resource is supported by the Department for Education and Public Health England. Find out more and download the materials here.

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