Food for thought

It was not my intention to ever use my personal blog to write about the stuff I cover in my professional life. But over the past few days I’ve been chatting with some people who also know a lot about schools catering and some things have occurred to me that I think it’s worth putting ‘out there’ about the current review of school dinners that was announced last week.

But it’s not the kind of thing I think I’d ever get commissioned to write about. So, I guess this is the feature writing equivalent of vanity publishing. Forgive me.

First let’s start with a little conspiracy theory I have. I wrote about it once and was kindly indulged by that nice Mr. Arthur at The Guardian.

So it goes like this. EastEnders is a cunning ploy by the government to make us think we’re all better off than we actually are. Because no matter how shit life is for you, you can watch EastEnders and then say, ‘well at least I’m not Ian Beale’ or whoever is currently having an incredibly pants time of it in that world. And so you feel a bit happier about your lot even though you’re juggling debt between three different pieces of plastic and you’re wondering whether you should get the kids shoes this month or try and stall the electricity company a bit longer.

So, last week the Department for Education announced they were going to hold another review into school dinners. They have asked two of the co-founders of a restaurant chain called Leon – Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent – to conduct the review. The stated aims of the review are:

To ensure that our children are eating well in schools the plan will address two key questions:

  • what more needs to be done to make tasty, nutritious food available to all school children?
  • how do we excite children about the food so that they want to eat it?

Now, maybe it was a simple error, but the press release that came out of the DfE justifying the need for this latest review mis-quotes a statistic from a recent study by the School Food Trust. And I have seen this statistic reprinted in the national press.

The School Food Trust (SFT) has conducted a widescale survey of schools and academy caterers who are trying hard to meet the stringent nutrient standards that became law for most schools (but not Academies and the new Free Schools) following the Jamie Oliver provoked shake up of school food.

Now I could be doing them an immense disservice, but I think the way the government is presenting the SFT’s results is more than a little misleading.

In their release they say:

  • only 22.5 per cent of schools provide at least one portion of fruit and veg per pupil every day
  • half of secondary schools offer pizzas and starchy food cooked in oil on most days
  • a third of young people are not choosing a healthy balanced meal at school.

Shocking. After all that work they’ve been doing as well.

But something about this had me scratching my head and I contacted the SFT to check with them. Sure enough they said… well, actually they’ve asked me not to quote directly from the email where they concurred that the statistic was used incorrectly, so you’ll just have to imagine my delight consternation to hear this. But they did clarify:

The 22.5% figure refers to discrete portions of fruit and veg (e.g a portion of peas or carrots as a side to a meal, or a banana) in secondary schools (i.e not in all schools, as the press release says).  

The number is absolutely correct, though it’s only part of the picture for fruit and veg (which our research paper explains), because pupils do also get some of their portions of fruit and veg from mixed dishes too, e.g chickpea curry, or salad in wraps and sandwiches, or fruit in desserts, which aren’t accounted for in that stat. As you’ll know, mixed dishes are a big part of secondary menus and a big part of boosting pupils’ consumption of fruit and veg.

Hmmm. The other thing that struck me about the DfE’s statement is the notion of providing one portion of fruit and veg per pupil per day. On the face of it, not doing so would seem to be outrageous, but think for a minute. Say there are 800 pupils in your secondary school who most often take a lunch, and you provide 800 portions of fruit and veg each day. And then x% of pupils are away from school, and y% bring a packed lunch, and n% buy their lunch elsewhere, and a further t% grab a sandwich in the canteen and don’t pick up a portion of peas to go with it.

Then the caterer is left drowning in a sea of wasted fruit and veg. This degree of wastage would certainly not make sense for any catering business, let alone one that is having to work incredibly hard to provide tasty, nutritionally compliant dinners on an exceedingly tight budget.

Sure enough the SFT said: Your point about waste is definitely a part of the picture. Here are some extracts from our secondary and primary school food surveys, about that stat on provision of a discrete portion of fruit or veg for every pupil having school meals every day:

Secondary: “Although 98% of schools provided vegetables and salad on 4-5 days per week, only 22.5% provided at least one portion per pupil every day. A further 20% of schools provided at least three-quarters of a portion of vegetables per pupil, with a further 25% providing at least half a portion.

Only two schools (3%) provided at least one portion of fruit per pupil each day. This is likely to reflect caterers trying to avoid wastage – less than 5% of pupils took fruit, so providing a portion per pupil had the potential to incur high levels of wastage from the caterer’s perspective. A further 30% of schools provided at least half a portion of fruit per pupil.

Here is the full picture on fruit and vegetables being included in pupil’s meals at primary and secondary schools:


57% of pupils now take vegetables in their average lunch

23% take salad 

40% took fruit or a fruit-based dessert

The average number of portions of fruit and veg on children’s plates is now 2.2

The average number of portions they eat is now 1.6

35% of pupils consume at least 2 portions of fruit and veg in their school lunch and 50% consumed at least 1.5 portions


98% of schools offer veg and salad now (compared to just 60% in 2004)

96% offer fruit

72% of secondary pupils take some fruit, salad or veg as part of their school lunch

The average number of portions of fruit and veg that they eat is 0.8

61% of secondary pupils now take foods containing veg/fruit/salad/beans/pulses as a part of their lunch

25% take fruit juice

So, 72% of teenagers are deliberately putting salad, vegetables or fruit on their lunch plates, but the DfE is shouting that a third of young people are not choosing a healthy balanced meal.

Now let’s quickly move onto those other stats before you die of boredom. (I do often apologise for the fact that I am a sad catering geek. I extend this apology to you.)

Pizza. The DfE is hand-wringing about half of schools offering pizza to kids on most days. Now, remember this, in the USA, pizza in schools is considered a vegetable FFS. We don’t go that far, but even Jamie Oliver acknowledged that pizza sauce (and toppings) are a great way to get a lot of veggies into a child. And school food manufacturers got very clever and have managed to produce a lot of foods that kids love – like pizza – but that still meet the nutritional standards. I wrote about their innovations here. Actually it turns out it’s not that hard to make a healthy pizza. You cut a load of the salt in the base, use a much smaller amount of a stronger tasting cheese and you ram the tomato sauce with as much vegetable matter as you can reasonably get away with while still keeping it looking red and hey presto.

The SFT said: In 2004, two-thirds of secondary schools used to offer pizza every day – that’s now down to only half, and pupils are actually eating pizza less often. You’re right in that pizza can be a good way to get veggies/protein/wholegrains into children, as long as they are used within a menu which meets the food and nutrient-based standards.

And now the DfE’s claim about schools serving fried foods. The SFT told me: On starchy foods cooked in fat/oil: more than three quarters of schools (77%) used to offer these foods every day – now it’s just over half of schools that do this (53%). 46% of schools met the standard, which requires that these foods aren’t served on more than 3 days a week. The average across all schools is that they’re serving these foods on around 3.5 days per week. Still too many but far better than it was (and this is in a very short space of time, as secondary schools only had to start meeting the nutrient-based standards from September 2009). This has had an impact on pupils’ choices, with the percentage of pupils choosing starchy food cooked in oil as part of their lunch falling from 50% in 2004 to 17% in 2011.

We’re not aware of other interventions which have managed to have that level of impact on provision/consumption of food in schools in such a short time.

So, excuse me, did I hear that right? Only 17% of kids now choose fried food for their lunch? Well maybe it’s just me but I think that’s a jaw-dropping breakthrough.

Ok, so this is already ridiculously long so I’ll attempt to wrap it up.

I had an email debate yesterday with Rob Lyons at Spiked who wrote this about the review. I tend to agree with him that it would seem to be largely superfluous. The school meal system has undergone such a massive change in a relatively short time – less than three whole years since the nutritional standards became law in secondary schools – that I would argue it’s way too soon to see proper results.

I have seen it suggested that the purpose of the review is simply a means of getting an outside party to recommend that Academies and Free Schools also become obliged to meet the standards, so the government can force compliance without appearing to be the bad guys.

I disagreed with Rob on a few issues. The SFT has published research that shows the benefits that improved nutrition has on learning behaviours in the classroom.

I pointed out something that raises my eyebrow a little. Mainly that I think the timing of the report is interesting.

In 2013 when Universal Credit comes in it has the potential for further massive disruption to schools catering. Part of the review of benefits payments is designed to stop the ‘cliff edge’ that occurs when small changes to a family’s income can have a massive negative impact on the benefits they receive, and therefore have the effect of actually making them worse off.

The government wants to taper entitlement to help families get back into employment without losing money.

Free school meals (FSM) are what they call a ‘passported benefit’ where they are automatically entitled to anyone in receipt of benefits. But the changes to the system mean those eligibility criteria will no longer exist. LACA the Local Authority Caterers Association have big concerns about what this will mean for them as there currently seems to be no clear route by which they could manage a tapering of free meals. Do the kids only have three out of five meals a week? Does the money go direct to the family out of which they will be expected to partially fund their children’s dinners? (And would they?)

So I am wondering whether the timing of the Leon report in 2013 may also have some significance for this.

I tend to roll my eyes somewhat when people point to the slow increase in meal uptakes at secondary schools as a sign that the new regime isn’t working.

I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable that a larger scale increase in uptakes will not likely be seen in secondary schools until more of the current generation of better eaters have moved up. The standards were made law in primary schools in 2008. That means those entering reception that year won’t reach secondary school until 2015. That uptakes are improving, particularly in secondary schools  – however slowly – is a real credit to those who have really highlighted the issue amongst schools and families, and I would argue against Rob that this is precisely why better education on nutrition and food preparation is essential on the curriculum, and far from being ‘horribly distorted’ as he describes it, that not enough is being done to educate youngsters on the origins of food and how to turn it into tasty and nutritious meals.

And finally. I know. I’m SO sorry. One last point.

Earlier this week I was Tweeting with one of the Leon guys about an Academy he’d visited where school meals were compulsory for all the children. It occurred to me that the majority of schools that Dimbleby and Vincent are likely to visit will be flagship schools rolled out by various organisations to highlight best practice.

I could be wrong, but I think this because as a journalist who reads and writes a lot about school meals, I often note that those of us who do write about them, sometimes end up writing about the same schools and academies. Because when we ring different organisations’ press offices, they tend to offer us the institutions that they know will step up to the mark and say the right things in interviews and generally bang the drum they want them to bang. It’s not just a school meal thing, it tends to happen all over journalism.

But the problem with this is that those schools are not an accurate picture of the average meals the average kid in the school round the corner is eating.

This is why Martha Payne’s blog was so illuminating and powerful and instigated change. So, although it’s unlikely to happen, it would be a far more interesting and valuable piece of research if kids from schools across the country were allowed to post photos of a week of school dinners.

That way we would surely get a far more accurate picture of what they’re actually eating – or not.

And, er, that’s it. If you made it this far you get ten house points and you’re allowed to not watch EastEnders for a week.

UPDATE 1. I should note that I have heard that the DfE intend to amend their mis-quoted statistic, but even in spite of this I still think the way they’re presenting the information is quite misleading.

UPDATE 2. Well, here’s an interesting postscript. I’m sure it’s just an amazing case of ‘great minds’ but I posted links to this blog at around 8.30 this morning, and by lunchtime it was beginning to get picked up. At around 3pm this afternoon the DfE apparently Tweeted this:
DfE ‏@educationgovuk
We’ve just created a ‘school food’ board on Pinterest‪#LACA2012‬
Before I wrote about the idea of collecting school food photos in this blog I can tell you I discussed the notion with two other people on Monday. Neither of whom work for the DfE. Maybe I should switch my game to ‘consultant’. 😉

UPDATE 3. Following a Twitter ‘Follow Friday’ from @Childrensfood in which they generously linked me with the two Leon founders, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent have now read my blog and I am surprised and honoured to be able to say they’ve asked to meet with me to brainstorm some school food ideas. If you have anything you’d like me to tell them – nicely – now’s your chance to let me know. Use the comments section below.


NB for people I deal with on a professional basis: Ok, you got me, I do have a personal opinion about these things, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t write objectively about your organisations and the (genuinely) wonderful things you do when I’m paid to! 🙂


About Siobh

I am a freelance journalist and copywriter. My website will tell you everything you need to know.
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2 Responses to Food for thought

  1. Siobh says:

    I should note that I have heard that the DfE intend to amend their mis-quoted statistic, but even in spite of this I still think the way they’re presenting the information is quite misleading.

  2. Siobh says:

    Well, here’s an interesting postscript. I’m sure it’s just an amazing case of ‘great minds’ but I posted links to this blog at around 8.30 this morning, and by lunchtime it was beginning to get picked up. At around 3pm this afternoon the DfE apparently Tweeted this:
    DfE ‏@educationgovuk
    We’ve just created a ‘school food’ board on Pinterest ‪#LACA2012‬
    Before I wrote about the idea of collecting school food photos in this blog I can tell you I discussed the notion with two other people on Monday. Neither of whom work for the DfE. Maybe I should switch my game to ‘consultant’. 😉

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