Schools have a vital role to play in improving our nation’s food culture – they are a perfect place to drive the Food Revolution.

England’s School Food Plan, published in July 2013 and received to universal acclaim, sets out a shared vision and practical plan to improve what children eat in school and how they learn about food.

Why it matters

Good food and good food culture in schools has been shown to lead not only to healthier, happier and more fulfilled children, but to improved attainment. Schools have a crucial role to play in reducing the £6 billion spent annually by the NHS on food-related diseases (and the misery that lies behind that number) and a positive food culture can have a similarly positive role to play in improving the academic achievement of the poorest children.

It’s now nearly two years since three of the most significant changes proposed by the School Food Plan came into effect. All children in reception to year two (that’s five to seven year olds) now receive free school meals; practical cookery has become a compulsory part of the national curriculum for key stages 1 to 3.  And new food standards have been rolled out.

But, excellence does not come about by government decree: it is driven by great school leaders, and by imaginative cooks and teachers who are given the right circumstances and the right culture in which to flourish. Unless schools make the changes necessary for a thriving food culture, the legal changes will have a minimal impact.

What needs to be done

The School Food Plan recognised three driving principles behind every school getting food right:

1. They concentrate on the things children care about: good food, attractive environment, social life, price, “brand”.

2. They take a “whole school approach” to food, integrating it into the life of the school, food as part of a rounded education.

3. They have a head teacher who leads the change.

The School Food Plan has a dedicated ‘What Works Well’ website – giving head-teachers the inspiration and structural support they need.  It showcases brilliant examples from schools and links to a whole heap of useful resources.  Two of these, the Ofsted ‘Checklist’, and the ‘Teacher Training Toolkit’ are specifically designed to help schools understand and then deliver the practical changes they can put in place.

Teaching a whole generation to cook

Not only is cooking back as a mandatory part of the national curriculum, but its narrative contains a powerful paragraph: “Instilling a love of cooking in pupils will also open a door to one of the great expressions of human creativity.  Learning how to cook is a crucial life skill that enables pupils to feed themselves and others affordably and well, now and in later life”.

One of the absolute joys for anyone involved in food is seeing children engaged, excited, and enthralled by food.  At Charlton Manor Primary in Greenwich, (and a member of Jamie Oliver’s Kitchen Garden Project), all pupils take their turn donning bee suits and hunting for honey.  Practical food education grasps young people’s attention and gets them learning.  And of course it’s not just cooking skills that are taught during cooking lessons.  Skilled teachers will weave in maths, history, literacy, geography, chemistry, biology; in fact there isn’t a single subject that can’t be taught through the medium of food.

Throwing milk powder onto a Bunsen burner teaches chemistry; growing plants leads us down a path covering all aspects of biological education.  It’s the WOW factor and the natural curiosity (what does it taste like?) that gets young people involved.

And where we teach it is multi faceted too.  The school garden is a great learning zone – nearly 80% of schools have a growing space in their school. Whether it’s a raised bed or vertical growing wall in a tight for space urban school, or a full size allotment and farm, the learning experiences can be the same.  Of course, every school wants a separate teaching kitchen (whilst only 5% of Secondaries don’t, sadly only 25% of primaries do).

So, what more needs to be done?  We need to connect our nation’s will to embrace a good food culture with helping schools get the practical skills – and of course the resources to do it.  Schools will always welcome support – whether in the shape of helpful resources, local organisations and volunteers.

As part of the Food Revolution, let’s go and ‘instill a love of cooking’.

Read more about the School Food Plan here. For great resources and support, check out Jamie Oliver’s Kitchen Garden Project.

About Myles Bremner

Myles Bremner is the ex Director of the School Food Plan, and is now working with the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation.