Academies: bad news for school food

Whatever your opinion of celebrity chefs, few in the schools sector can have failed to notice the school food revolution that has taken place since a certain Mr Oliver visited a south London school in 2004.

After decades, menus of deep fried junk and ultra-processed fare that followed Thatcher’s introduction of compulsory competitive tendering have finally gone. But the fundamental transformation of school food didn’t happen overnight.  It took several years of hard work by catering staff, schools and parents, supported by the introduction of standards for meals and other food served in schools and injections of cash to train catering staff and upgrade – or in some cases, actually install – kitchens.

Although the situation in every school may not be perfect, school food has improved to a stage where it’s actually something we’d want to encourage kids to eat. School dinners now contain at least two portions of pupils’ 5-a-day of fruit and vegetables, and while (contrary to popular belief) fried foods are not banned, the fat, sugar and salt content of meals is limited. Despite doom-laden predictions that large numbers of kids would never actually eat healthy school meals, uptake has continued to rise for the past few years, proving that children enjoy healthy food when it is freshly prepared and attractively presented

There’s good reason to celebrate this progress. Evidence shows that eating healthy school meals helps children develop healthy eating habits which can last a lifetime, and improves their concentration in afternoon lessons, contributing to a better classroom environment for all pupils.

Despite its stated aim to reduce regulation, the Coalition appears to be smart enough to realise that scrapping the standards for school food would not be a politically astute move. But it has found another way to undermine them: through Academies.

All maintained schools must meet the school food standards, which ensure that meals are nutritionally balanced and other food available in schools (for example in vending machines or at breakfast clubs) doesn’t undermine healthy eating. But Academies and Free Schools are exempt from the standards, opening up the possibility of a return to the days of the infamous turkey twizzler.

So if the Academy and Free School models are adopted as widely as Education Secretary Michael Gove hopes, an enormous loophole will be created in which high standards for school food remain, but only apply to an increasingly small number of maintained schools.

As campaigners to improve and protect children’s food, we can call for the standards to be applied to the new Academies and Free Schools that have already opened, and any more that are established. But ultimately, this call to protect our kids’ dinners is in direct conflict with the Coalition’s deregulatory goals, of which the lax controls on Academies are a prime example.

The fight to protect children’s food therefore requires us to challenge the Academies model. Join us at Children’s Food, or find us on Twitter (@Childrensfood) and Facebook.

Christine Haigh

Children’s Food Campaign coordinator

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