October 2021 edition: The Moment to put Child Health at the Heart of Recovery

The Moment to put Child Health at the Heart of Recovery

Recovery. It’s on my mind as a head and Multi-academy Trust CEO every minute of every day. How do we ensure that every child gets back-on-track academically? How do we ensure every student gets the support they need emotionally coming through these unprecedented times? How do we ensure we are doing our bit for our young people’s health, both mentally and physically, to enable them to thrive? Through the pandemic we saw how central food was to all these things - it’s food that kept us nourished, it’s food that gave us and our families the fuel to press on and it was the challenges of food distribution that exemplified more than anything else, the inequality that persists across the country. As food was such a focus for all of us through lockdown, so I believe school food should remain a critical piece of the puzzle for school managers and leaders as we return to some kind of normality. We have an opportunity to learn the lessons of lockdown, shape and change the school food system and use that as a tool to build back healthier for every child, in every neighbourhood.

As Chair of the School Food Review Working Group, I am honoured to be working with heads, academics, governors, caterers, school business managers and school food campaigners to try and unpick what is working well in the school food system and what systemic challenges are blocking the way to improvement. With a collective voice to Government, and with input from heads and teachers across the country, we then hope to be able to effect change. Over the summer we embarked on a rigorous piece of research with the GENIUS network of academics, to ask teachers, parents, students, caterers and others interested in this space, to give us their view of what is working, what needs fixing and what is their vision for the future. It is clear there are beacons of great practice, even when schools and their catering teams have been working under the most enormous pressure. However, it is also apparent that there is huge inconsistency in provision up and down the country, national standards aren’t always being met and children who need free school meals are often not accessing provision because of issues of eligibility, or stigma. We have to fix this, because we know that well-nourished children learn better, grow better and are happier.

Our assessment is that, to make it easier for schools and their caterers to ensure schools are positive environments for health, Government needs to act on five things. First, entitlement - the eligibility criteria that exclude millions of children who would benefit from nutritious food at school. Second, school food procurement and operations that are failing to deliver consistently nutritious, sustainable and enjoyable food to our children. Third, Government needs to address the absence of an effective accountability mechanism to support quality provision and ensure that all children receive nutritionally balanced food at school. We believe there is a timely opportunity for the Food Standards Agency and local authority environmental health teams to work together to solve this. Fourth, we need to fix the issues around uptake: the administrative and stigmatic barriers to children accessing school food. And finally, Government should look at the convoluted funding system that makes it confusing for schools and does not guarantee delivery of good nutrition onto children’s plates.

Entitlement of School Meals School Food Procurement and Operations Addressing Accountability mechanisms Uptake Convoluted Funding system
The eligibility criteria that exclude millions of children who would benefit from nutritious food at school That are failing to deliver consistently nutritious, sustainable and enjoyable food to our children To support quality provision and ensure that all children receive nutritionally balanced food at school. We believe there is a timely opportunity for the Food Standards Agency and local authority environmental health teams to work together to solve this We need to fix the issues around uptake: the administrative and stigmatic barriers to children accessing school food That makes it hard for schools and does not guarantee delivery of good nutrition onto children’s plates.

 But we need your support. We need the Department for Education to hear from teachers and heads why these reforms are needed and why now. Government needs to think about the dual challenges we are facing as a nation, of childhood obesity and food insecurity, and how improving our school food system can contribute positively to both. Ministers should understand the issues we see in the classroom when children aren’t getting enough food, or how their behaviour is

We have an opportunity to learn the lessons of lockdown, shape and change the school food system and use that as a tool to build back healthier for every child, in every neighbourhood.

Nick Capstick

impacted when they eat too much of the wrong foods. Decision makers need to hear how the funding mechanisms around school food are overly complicated and inaccessible to many families that need them. And everyone across Government should know that good food supports good learning and development for the economic benefit of the whole country - we have the data to show this, but we know it is the stories that really matter, the case studies that really connect.This might seem like a radical suite of reforms, but it is deeply reassuring to see that in the recently published National Food Strategy, Henry Dimbleby recommends an Eat and Learn Initiative that would achieve a big step forward in most of these areas. In responding to the National Food Strategy with the forthcoming white paper on the food system, the Government has a perfect opportunity to act, to pull the levers to make changes which would transform school food provision for the better, for all of us.

Together we have an opportunity to make a change, to build back healthier and more resilient after this most turbulent of times. I would love to hear from you if you would like to get involved with our campaign or share your stories. Now is the time for us all to take action.