By Nathan Atkinson, Head Teacher, Richmond Hill Primary

High quality teaching is at the heart of a successful school. Teachers and the atmosphere they create can inspire kids to learn. And, often times, can even change their course in life.

How can a child be expected to engage in quality learning if they are hungry?

At Richmond Hill Primary School we identified hunger as a major barrier to learning and believe it has a negative impact on the outcomes achieved by children.

The Universal Free School Meals programme is only part of the answer

Universal Free School Meals at lunch for children in Reception and Key Stage 1 is a positive intervention in tackling the challenge of hunger. However, a high percentage of children attend school each day without breaking the fast of the previous day, and some even without a drink.

Many factors contribute to this; poverty and unconscious neglect being the two most common. An empty stomach affects concentration, energy levels, attentiveness and emotional wellbeing. Prolonged exposure to lack of food ultimately results in children working below age related expectations.

Add to this the fact that the traditional model of education front loads key learning during morning sessions when children are at their most productive, and it becomes clear that lunch comes too late in the day to provide the support kids need.

Interventions like the Universal Free Schools Meals programme were designed to support children “catch up” and “close the gap.” But they’re ineffective if the targeted children who continue to arrive at school every day with empty stomachs.

Breakfast is where potential is fed

Providing children with food each morning would be costly – both financially, and in additional time added to classroom timetables already beyond capacity. So, knowing the constraints we were working with, we set out to find a sustainable solution to hunger. And to break down a key barriers to learning for all children.

Working in partnership with the Real Junk Food Project, we became aware of the vast amounts of edible food that is wasted each day. Supermarkets, caterers, independent traders and wholesalers all generate tons of food waste that heads straight to landfill sites. Businesses are charged for the disposal of their waste yet it seems they accept such fees as part of their operating costs.

Instead, we wanted to find a way to redirect that food to hungry mouths and minds at school.

With the support of our partners, we have been able to intercept food waste products and utilise them within our school based café. And we’ve set up a weekly food boutique. A wide variety of products have been distributed through this initiative; fruit, vegetables, pastries, cakes, bread, cheese, cooking oil, tinned and jarred products to name a few.

Bread has been a huge part of stemming hunger at the beginning of the school day. In specific response to our goal to remove hunger at the start of each school day, we’ve received large quantities of bread from our partners. It’s enabled us to provide toast each morning to all our pupils (630 children) using only intercepted bread.

Our weekly food boutique helps us to expand our reach, and help the families of kids in need access good quality food at a price to suit. The boutique operates on the same “pay as you feel” basis as the Real Junk Food Project. “Pay as you feel” means the local community can contribute time, skills and even food they can’t use in exchange for their choice of the surplus food we collect.

Hunger doesn’t break for the holidays

In response to requirements of the local community, the café and boutique are open through term time – and school holidays.

Families having access to school during the holidays ensures additional support and guidance can be given when required to any families in need.

At Richmond Hill Primary School we have used food as a medium to engage more deeply with families – and to meet their needs in the most basic way.

Our coffee mornings are extremely well attended and provide a lifeline for many families. Families are becoming better educated about food and nutrition. The families have built trust with the school and, as a result, outcomes for children are improving. These outcomes have been made possible by utilizing food that “the system” deemed useless and not fit for purpose!

Fuel for School

The success of the work at Richmond Hill inspired a local awareness day where schools across Leeds were invited to take part in an event where food would be made available to provide a breakfast to any child in the city.

Eventually 10,000 children were signed up from Leeds, Bradford, Sunderland and Doncaster. And on Dec 8th 2015 children received food that would have otherwise been thrown away. The legacy of this awareness day is the formal creation of Fuel for School.

Fuel for School currently provides 40 schools across Leeds with a weekly delivery of food. This food is used by the schools in a variety of ways; market stalls for the school community, ingredients for cooking activities, rewards for children, supplement breakfast clubs and even chicken food for a school farm! Currently 6 tonnes of food per week are being saved from landfill as a result of this work. And this will increase as more schools sign up to the project.

In addition to food deliveries the programme also provides schools with an education resource that includes lesson plans and activities designed to improve well-being (including mental health for children), cooking ideas, nutritional awareness (specific reference made to sugar), exercise plans and ideas on how to reduce food waste. The resource links with The Real Junk Food Project in highlighting the global issue of food waste. Schools also receive a visit from Fred the Fox.

Making the holidays free from hunger for all children

Universal Free School Meals for Early Years, Key Stage 1 and children eligible across Key Stages 2, 3 and 4, ensures children are able to be fed and nourished throughout the academic year.

But what happens when the schools close for the holidays?

Holiday Hunger is an issue faced by many families across the country. Fuel for School helps to bridge the gap created when the term time ends and the holidays begin.

Fuel for School is a year round programme with deliveries to schools available 52 weeks a year. These deliveries of food, coupled with the creativity of school leadership and access to school sites throughout the year provides the ideal environment for ensuring children are nourished all year round.

The project has now expanded beyond the city of Leeds and in Sept 2016 launched in over schools across Wigan, Brighton and Sheffield.

In recognition of his work, Nathan Atkinson was named in the top 50 teachers World Wide by the Varkey Foundation as part of the 2017 Global Teacher Prize.

Learn more about Nathan’s work and Fuel for School by following their work on Twitter:

@newsfromschool @fuelforschool @fredfuelfox @realjunkfood