Healthy Eating Week 2020: Why Nutrition Must Be a Priority in Schools After Lockdown
Over the past few weeks, education news outlets have been dominated by stories of how schools have managed to safely reopen to all pupils, and how the majority of these pupils have been desperately eager to return to school, excited at the prospect of returning to a normal learning routine.
Whilst classroom learning is a key aspect of this routine, it’s important to take into consideration the effect of a positive lunchtime experience on a student’s ability to learn. As today marks the start of the British Nutrition Foundation's Healthy Eating Week, we’re looking at why nutrition must be a key priority for schools as the start of a new style of learning begins.
Importance of school meals during lockdown
When schools closed in March, this brought a period of unrest and disruption to the routine of many, especially to younger children who were still getting used to the normal school routine and the benefits that it brought.
Whilst many have adapted, the issue of providing pupils, especially those eligible for free school meals and whose parents/guardians were made redundant, with a regular supply of nutritious meals was crucial for education professionals and highlighted the amazing work being done within the sector.
One example of this was the tireless effort put in by headteacher Zane Powles to hand-deliver 7,500 free school meals to his students in Grimsby. Another prominent case of the fight to provide children with free school meals was by footballer Marcus Rashford, who successfully called for the government to reverse a decision not to provide free school meal vouchers during the summer.
The admirable effort by those to help struggling families during lockdown only goes to show the importance of school meals, and how schools can provide a vital service in keeping pupils well-fed with delicious and nutritious meals.
The crisis of child food poverty is only growing, with up to 1.5 million more children in England eligible for free school meals, according to the National Food Strategy. Therefore, the need to provide pupils with nutritious food during lunchtime is only heightened when many pupils rely on this meal as their main meal of the day, especially after months during which some pupils may have experienced very limited access to healthy food.
Whilst many factors affect a child’s ability to learn, providing them with a healthy lunch after months of uncertainty will be crucial in the effort to make up for time lost in the classroom.
Government regulations state that food served in schools and academies in England must meet standards that require the provision of good-quality meat, poultry or oily fish, fruit and vegetables, bread and other cereals and potatoes.
Drinks with added sugar, as well as crisps, chocolate or sweets are banned in school meals and vending machines, as well as a limit of no more than 2 portions of deep-fried, battered, or breaded food a week. These regulations ensure that all the vital food groups are covered, providing pupils with healthy food that will keep their energy levels up and equip them with the tools to learn.
The new school lunchtime experience
Since schools reopened, the lunchtime experience differs by each school, with some schools operating on a ‘packed lunch’ only basis, whether that’s provided by the school or parents, other schools opting for pupils to each their lunch in the classroom, and other schools offering pre-order services from the canteen, ensuring pupils can still safely access hot school meals.
Pre-order software, including AMI’s Transact offering, allows pupils to pre-order their lunches ahead of time, reducing the need for queueing in the dining hall and therefore ensuring social distancing measures are abided by, which is becoming increasingly popular amongst schools across the UK and is looking to be a vital drive in keeping children well-fed at lunchtime during the new age of social distancing rules in schools.
Value of hot school meals
Vital government regulations over the content of school meals mean that every pupil eating a hot school meal, including those eligible for free school meals, has access to at least one nutritionally adequate meal during the day. Packed lunches, on the other hand, aren’t required to abide by these regulations, with research finding that only 2% of packed lunches meet school food standards (Evans et al, 2020).
Some may argue that packed lunches can be as nutritionally balanced as school meals, and whilst this is true in some cases, due to the lack of regulations over the content of lunchboxes, focusing on hot school meals is the easiest and most effective way of ensuring all the necessary dietary requirements are met for all children, as well as being a safer option for pupils suffering from food allergies.
"Serving a hot nutritious daily meal to pupils would mean that parents, schools, and their caterers would have more faith knowing that children are getting the food that they need. For many vulnerable children, their hot school meal is the only meal they have in the day. A simpler (and healthier) food offer would go a long way to ensure pupils are eating food which meets the mandated school meal standards rather than being lured away by the daily temptation of their favourite food. " Jeanette Orrey, co-founder of Food for Life.
Therefore, as we mark the beginning of Healthy Eating Week, ensuring hot school meals are on the menu during school lunchtimes will be a key driver in the fight for ensuring each child, regardless of their circumstances, are provided with consistent, good quality food as they settle back into their new school routine. And judging by the increase in schools switching to cashless payments and a ‘grab and go’ style of lunch service, pre-ordering software will be the future of the Covid-19 friendly school lunchtime experience.
To learn more about how you can get involved in BNF Healthy Eating Week, visit: https://bit.ly/366CYBh
Over the past two years, the Coronavirus pandemic has caused widespread chaos and disruption across the country, perhaps most notably to children and staff in education.
Since March 2020, UK children have spent months in and out of local and national lockdowns. These disruptions resulted in an unprecedented amount of time missed from the classroom and a nationwide appeal to increase the standards of home food parcels for free school meal kids who missed out on their regular hot and healthy meals that would normally be served from the canteen.
Despite the hardships and challenges that everyone in education catering has faced, it’s been brilliant to see how the industry has bounced back since reopening.
Food Parcels and School Responses
In January of this year, one mother took to Twitter to express her shock over the quality of a food parcel she had received. The image, which was shared 15,000 times on social media, sparked a huge discussion across the UK about the quantity and quality of food distributed to the homes of children claiming free school meal provision.
In response to the criticism, some schoolteachers and caterers began stepping in to help struggling children and parents from their own pockets, showing the incredible kindness of those working in education.
One school staff member, Zane Powels, donated 7,500 meals in total alongside laptops to assist vulnerable children whilst they were learning at home. The hero from Western Primary School in Grimsby was given an MBE for his amazing efforts, delivering 138 meals a day to children - walking a total of 550 miles during last year’s first lockdown.
Another team of school caterers from Thomas Deacon Education Trust in Peterborough also pulled together to deliver 600 meal parcels over four weeks. Catering Operations Manager for TDET, Michael Dove, said: “It has been an honour to support our local community throughout this pandemic. We understand that food plays an important role in enabling our pupils to achieve their very best. For some children, the meal they would usually have at school would be their only hot meal of the day and we must continue to provide this for them in the best way we can.”
This collective effort of school caterers lead to a nationwide review of the school meal packages, prompting change and helping to protect vulnerable children at a time where they needed it most.
Reopening School Kitchens
When schools returned, the regular lunch service that everyone had known had been changed completely. New social distancing measures were put in place, and more schools started to implement pre-ordering solutions to allow for a safer and simpler grab-and-go system.
Not only could thousands of vital school caterers return to working at full capacity, but the pause from ordinary operations has allowed the industry to revaluate its approaches towards sustainability and food waste.
A report produced by Footprint Intelligence which focused on conquering challenges in education catering during COVID-19, discovered that 75% of foodservice professionals believed that sustainability had been side-lined because of the pandemic and a further 96% reported that COVID-19 had increased the use of disposables. But there is hope! The same people noted that other solutions are proven to work including existing crockery and reusable options such as bento boxes and how there was now the momentum to change a broken system.
The report concluded that with the learnings of the pandemic considered, there is no better time than now to begin future-proofing the school lunch service for the benefit of the planet. Whether it be through trailing a plant-based menu, implementing pre-ordering solutions, or pushing for policy changes, the resilience from the education catering industry throughout these tough times has meant that it now can bounce back better than ever before.
Celebrating the Industry
Finally, it’s been a difficult year, so celebrating the work of the industry is paramount. With awards such as The LACA Awards For Excellence and the Public Sector Catering Awards on the calendar, these events will allow us to celebrate the unsung heroes of the pandemic and push the industry to even greater heights as it bounces back to its former glory.
We can’t wait to see what happens next.
When presented with a slice of pizza or a salad, most pupils will likely choose the pizza. For many students, the fast, greasy, and fried option will ultimately be more appealing.
When faced with this reality, combined with the ever-increasing accessibility of fast, takeaway foods from outlets such as Deliveroo and JustEat, schools and parents face increasing challenges to get pupils to make healthier eating choices in schools. At ami Education, we’re looking at simple and practical ways to encourage healthy eating in schools and the impact on pupils.
Emphasise nutrition education
Many of us understand how the food we eat impacts our everyday life, including our concentration levels, mood, skin, hair, and even sleep. However, some pupils, especially those without an active interest in food and nutrition, risk not understanding the full extent to which the food they put in their bodies affects their life.
Schools, parents, and guardians can take an active role in educating pupils about nutrition and the impact that a healthy diet has on their ability to learn, as well as their life outside of the classroom.
Focusing on how food can make us feel and demonstrating how the choices we make regarding food directly affects the way we behave enables action-based learning which pupils can apply to their everyday life.
For example, demonstrating how switching from white pasta to wholewheat pasta can keep us fuller for longer and therefore reduce the risk of excess snacking and how simple changes can make a significant impact and encourages pupils to take an active role in their health.
Food labels and online resources
Nutrition and allergen information on food labels is mandatory. With Natasha’s Law soon to come into effect, which will require all food businesses, including school caterers, to include accurate and in-depth ingredient lists on food labels, pupils must learn what this information means to them.
Nutrition information can help us to make informed food choices, and educating pupils on how to read and process food labels is crucial, especially if we want pupils to carry healthy eating habits into adulthood.
In the classroom, teachers can provide worksheets for pupils to fill in and compare food labels from different products. Food A Fact Of Life, managed by the British Nutrition Foundation, which provides free educational resources for nutrition education, suggests providing pupils with clean packaging from a range of standard and healthy food options.
The pupils can read and compare food labels and discuss the findings with their classmates, such as the first ingredient listed in each product, compare the sugar and fat contents, and why some products are more likely to contain higher amounts of sugars than others.
Online resources are not only available to schools but also to parents and guardians. Websites such as Change4Life, launched in 2009 as part of a national goal set out in the government’s Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives initiative, is designed to ensure parents and guardians have the essential support and tools they need to make healthier choices for their family.
Change4Life provides fun activities, recipes, and a range of food facts to help educate families on nutrition and provide a fun and interactive way for children to learn about a healthy lifestyle. Visit the Change4Life website to access these resources.
School dinners vs packed lunches
Whilst school catering teams strive to provide nutritious and tasty lunches to help power pupils through the day, the prevalence of packed lunches is a challenge for schools aiming to meet strict nutritional standards.
In UK schools, there is currently no government guidance on packed school lunches. Whilst individual schools in England can decide their policy on food brought in from home, compared with hot school meals required to meet strict nutritional standards, packed lunches face fewer restrictions and increase the likelihood of unhealthy food brought in.
Research conducted by the Children’s Food Trust in 2013 compared hot school meals against packed lunches following new compulsory school food standards. The research found that school meals are now consistently more nutritious than packed lunches, giving children who eat them a better foundation for good health.
For pupils of all ages, opting for hot school lunches where possible ensure their lunch choices will contain:
- High-quality meat, poultry or oily fish
- Fruit and vegetables
- Bread, other cereals and potatoes
Parents and pupils can also rest assured that restrictions for hot school meals apply to:
- Drinks with added sugar, crisps, chocolate, or sweets
- Limits of no more than two portions of deep-fried, battered, or breaded food a week
Offer a familiar ordering experience for pupils
Technology plays a significant part in our everyday lives, especially for secondary school students. With easily accessible food delivery apps like Uber Eats and Deliveroo on every mobile phone, providing a solution that competes with these out-of-the-gate spending options and encouraging pupils back in the dining hall has never been easier.
Technology like ami’s Infinity+ Order app breaks the confines of the school dining hall and enables pupils to pre-order their school meals directly from their mobile phone, anytime, anywhere. Infinity+ Order offers secondary school pupils a familiar food ordering method whilst providing a host of other benefits to pupils and school staff, including:
- Reduced lunch queues - pupils pre-order their meals ready to collect at lunchtime
- Pupils can view their live cashless balance and previous transaction history anytime, anywhere
- Helps reduce food wastage by informing school catering teams of what to prepare in advance
- Reporting suite assists with stock control and trend predictions
From ground to fork
An increasing number of UK schools are now dedicating school ground spaces to growing fresh fruit and vegetables to serve in the school dining hall.
This new teaching method encourages pupils to make healthy eating choices in school by involving them in where their food comes from and teaching about food production outside of the classroom and the overall process from ground to fork.
For establishments with ground space to spare, providing areas for pupils to grow fresh fruits and vegetables teaches them to take an active interest in the food they eat.
Teaching pupils the value of growing their food encourages students to opt for lunch choices they grew and provides freshly grown, organic foods that appeal to students.
One UK school pioneering the way in growing and rearing its own produce is Charlton Manor Primary School, based in South-East London. Its pupils grow figs, oranges, tomatoes, grapes, and kiwis. There are also chickens and three beehives on-site, whilst the school has a campaign team made up of year 5 and 6 pupils to raise awareness about healthy diets.
“Charlton is a brilliant example of a school bringing together gardening and healthy eating. With vision and a bit of dedication, any school can get growing." Chris Collins, Head of Organic Horticulture for Garden Organic.
Encouraging students to make healthy choices in school can often seem like an uphill battle. With these simple tips and a wealth of online resources available for schools and parents, we can all get involved with inspiring the next generation to take control over their health, both inside and outside of the classroom.
Interested in learning more about Infinity+ Order? Get in touch to learn more about how pre-ordering can benefit your school.