Food for thought

The School Food Plan, food poverty and the joy of breakfast was explored at the second annual Children’s Food Conference in London.

A £40m Lottery fund announcement, a summary of the forthcoming School Food Plan and initiatives helping kids eat better gave the second Children’s Food Conference plenty to talk about.

Despite the Trust’s impending Government funding cut which takes effect from 31 March, there were no long faces in sight. Instead, Linda Cregan, the Trust’s incoming CEO opened the day to touch on its achievements, including the Lets Get Cooking scheme reaching over 2.5 million people and school meal take up rising again this year.

But it wasn’t only about cooking and eating. Dave Payne, father to school food blogger Martha Payne of NeverSeconds regaled both his and Martha’s experience of blogging Martha’s school dinners and the impact of Martha’s communications with the rest of the world. The resounding message from Dave was the power of children’s voices. “We need to let kids communicate in a way they’re comfortable with,” he said. For Martha, it was through photos, which has led to the engagement of millions since its launch.

And with any luck, Martha will soon be posting pictures of school meals she loves if the Government’s School Food Plan does the job. Consultant on the Plan, Henry Dimbleby of LEON Restaurants, was careful to avoid any pre-emption of what the Plan will entail before its full announcement next month. “There’s been so much negativity and aggression around school food,” he said, but “there’s an enormous amount to celebrate.”

While pointing out the nutritional inferiority of packed lunches, with two thirds of parents sending their children to school with one, Henry also touched on the social aspects of dining. “It’s not just about food but the atmosphere in the dining room and the social element,” he said. “There’s never been a golden age of school food,” he said.

Henry offered up some staggering stats, one being the school meal workforce is bigger than the Royal Navy, another that £1.2bn is spent on packed launches every year. “We want to focus getting that packed lunch money back into the system,” he said.

Henry summarised what the School Food Plan aims to deliver in practice:

  • Encourage more take up so there is means to an end
  • Adopt a whole school approach
  • All schools are still able to serve hot food
  • Improve the ‘sizzle factor’ and make vegetables taste better
  • No hungry children
  • Improving the school dinners ‘brand’
  • Aligning the heads
  • Sharing best practice – every problem has already been solved

If all this falls into place, Henry said “I truly believe we’ll have a generation that enjoys life more.” But there was concern during the Q&A from one audience member who asked for confirmation that the changes wouldn’t affect current nutritional standards, to which Henry only replied “these are currently under review so I can’t comment yet.”

But in amongst the policy and best practice examples across early years, primary and secondary schools, there was some practical advice (and live cooking demonstration) from Fiona Faulkner, the ‘toddler chef’, and Rob Rees of the Trust. Their conversation was about engaging children with cooking at home. Fiona dispelled some myths – “it’s a fallacy that all kids love getting messy with cooking – shy children and those with learning difficulties don’t”, and both were keen to highlight the “ponce” in cooking and for parents to not feel threatened.


Of course, it’s not just about school dinners, as a session with Carmel McConnell of Magic Breakfast, Michael Nelson of the School Food Trust and John Blackledge of Blackpool City Council made clear. Breakfast clubs are helping millions of children avoid rumbling tummies at the start of the school day. Carmel said that another 800,000 children are expected to be in poverty by 2015 – highlighting the need for such schemes across the UK as standard. Magic Breakfast is working on a national agenda with Government as part of the School Food Plan to explore the viability of taking its current service of bagels, porridge and orange juice to 6,500 London children nationwide.

Blackpool Council’s breakfast club pilot has also been a success. John reported an 88% improvement in attendance following the introduction of breakfast clubs which serves 11,000 children in 33 schools. “Kids are racing to school to have breakfast with their mates,” he said.

What happens to kids at breakfast during their school holidays, however, is an issue still to be explored by the Council. Clues to its potential success in Blackpool and beyond lie with Magic Breakfast’s trial of half-term breakfast clubs, which Carmel said were hugely successful.


How can food programmes address poverty in the UK? This was the consideration of the day’s final discussions. The panel was chaired by Observer journalist Jay Rayner who led the discussion between Carmel McConnell of Magic Breakfast, Steve Iredale, President, National Association of Head Teachers, Aseem Malhotra, Cardiology Specialist Registrar and journalist, and Rosie Boycott, Chair of the London Food Board.

Steve’s worries that the School Food Plan will have no impact; Aseem said the food environment has led to a lack of action on obesity; Carmel said we need to become activists in what we believe and Rosie wanted people to take the matter of hungry children in schools more seriously.

Rosie and Carmel came to some disagreements over whether companies retailing unhealthy foods should be taxed. Rosie argued analogies with tobacco companies should be encouraged, while Carmel felt education was a better method. But Aseem observed this would be like telling a child who lives in a sweetshop to not eat sweets.

As to whether the panel was in a midst of optimism or despair, the reaction was mixed. There were calls for campaigns at a local level to avoid “hassling” politicians; concern for the NHS on the edge of crippling and the acknowledgement that the industry is in it for the long haul.

Rob Rees close of conference concluded that ultimately, arguments are evidence based: “it gives professionalism to our activism”.

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