17/06/15 – Working Group Report – Food in Schools and the Teaching of Food

Speakers: Baroness Benjamin; Dr Estelle Mackay MSc PhD SRD; Dr Emma Derbyshire BSc PhD RNutr

17th June 2015 – meeting notes

All-Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood

The launch of the 3rd Working Group Report: “Food in Schools and the Teaching of Food” 

Download the Report

Chair: Baroness Benjamin

Baroness Benjamin

This report was published on Monday and received lots of publicity and support, including from The Daily Mail. I asked a Question in the House, which was also warmly received. Having sent the Minister the Question and a copy of the report in advance the Minister was able to give a good, full and helpful response and wants to have a meeting with this Group.

The Government is due to publish a National Obesity Framework. This is a great opportunity and we plan to seek a meeting with the Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt, on the matter.  Our task as a Group is to influence the content of the Framework.  If the Government is determined to tackle obesity (especially child obesity) but the measures adopted are inadequate this will be a failure for the rest of this Parliament, because the Government will be committed to their strategy. The Group Secretariat is looking for sponsorship to produce a report to feed into this framework.

Dr Estelle Mackay

There are mixed messages in the media. Yesterday, Sky News discussed an Edinburgh University publication referring to the benefits of eating two chocolate bars a day, whilst the ticker at the bottom of the screen referenced a story on fitness tests for children.

In 1985, whilst researching in schools in Stockport, I met dinner ladies who were furious with the change to a cash cafeteria; it highlighted the problem for children at school: the chip shop.

In an obesogenic environment the whole world feels like one big restaurant! We make 200 food intake decisions a day; we experience mindless eating.

In 2013 Ofsted inspections put in place a consideration of food and the environment which was subsequently dropped in 2014. The specification that school cooks have an accredited qualification has been stalled; the national Healthy Schools programme has been stopped and Free Schools and Academies have been exempted from compulsory food standards.

I worked on an evaluation exercise for an in-school food growing project (these depend on staff availability and knowledge) in SE London. The children were having fun and playing with nutrition. The project was let down by the approach of the evaluation, which failed to take into account the benefits the children were experiencing. Evaluations of such projects need to be reconsidered.

Whilst there are many calls for action against fast food outlets near schools (there are moves in Scotland in particular) we must get the evidence right. Research by Professor Paul Gately, (Leeds Beckett University) suggests that this environmental issue is not actually a significant factor.

Dr Emma Derbyshire

Michelle Obama said that “the real problems form when the fun stuff becomes the habit”

In the UK at the moment we have deficiencies in Vitamin D and iron, high consumption of foods high in fat and sugar and low consumption of oily fish and foods high in fibre.

A fifth of children between the ages of 4 and 5 are overweight or obese; this figure increases to a third by age 11. It is harder to intervene as children get older; there is an increase in diabetes, pre-diabetes and metabolic syndrome, all of which affects the NHS.

Children spend 635 hours a year at school in primary school. In secondary school the figure is 700; school offers an opportunity to train their palates.

This is Generation Z, (those born after 2000) defined as being smarter, more sensitive (about issues such as climate change) more technologically astute and with the opportunity to change things. We need to think about what they need to learn in their schools

They should learn about what to eat, but there is a shortfall in the way scientific papers are translated. There is a need to know how food affects health, performance and well-being. Children live typically in the present; they need to understand how they will be affected later in life. Moreover teenagers need to prepare for a family of their own, including readying their bodies for child rearing. Education should include teaching about food, nutrition, the environment, animal welfare and sustainability.

As an example of the lack of these branches of knowledge, at a project in Wythenshawe, pupils were asked how much water we need to drink each day. The answer given was 8 litres. There is a need to learn, but also to understand and this necessitates that training in nutrition should be included in the teaching qualification the Postgraduate Certificate in Education.

Culture is also a factor, with a tendency in black and South Asian families to eat foods from their generic backgrounds showing up the shortfalls in the system. South Asian people have a tendency towards diabetes.

In the words of Aristotle ‘educate the mind’ – but without educating the heart there is no education at all.

Baroness Benjamin: It is important to encourage parents to make a contribution too; we need their support. It takes 20-30 years for ideas to be fully accepted and understood.

Baroness Benjamin left for another meeting. Helen Clark took over Chair duties for the remainder of the meeting.

Helen Clark: The group extends a warm welcome to the new member, new Conservative MP Victoria Prentis MP.

Questions and discussion

Who are generation Z, what makes them different? Do they have high levels of anxiety and depression?

They are into technology, born into economic hard times and in different family groups. More information is available for them, making them different. I don’t know if they do have higher levels of anxiety as a result.

It is important to teach the information in schools because parents have not been taught nutrition; but who will have the skills to teach?

It will be difficult to integrate nutrition into the curriculum; we need the involvement of both classroom ‘opinion formers’ and parents and family members.  It is a huge challenge.

There should be new and alternative ways to get nutrition into schools. In the US  one trial has shown that rather than having it in a “nutrition segment” involving  nutrition with maths, and all other subjects showed improvements in both  nutrition awareness and understanding  and academic achievement. This is a ‘whole school’ approach; a bigger picture of nutrition.

The impact of the media

The media’s influence is an area to think about, with the rise in popularity and use of advergames.

The messages are decided by the media; they report and interpret any research as they choose.  How do we deal with this?

Do not be worried by that, as long as the reports get read they get attention.

Eat well plate

A commentator raised the usefulness of information resources such as the “Eat Well Plate”, but said it needed revising and updating.  Another contributor clarified that the plate is now undergoing a revision and is currently out for consultation.

Teachers as resources

Nutrition must be included as integral into the training of teachers; this gives the opportunity to keep re-enforcing the messages. This will require investment in the training of teachers.

National Child Measurement Programme

The National Child Measurement Programme (begun in 2006) has now gathered a great deal of information. Delivery is carried out by Local Authorities (having taken the task over from the former Primary Care Trusts). There is a good amount of evidence available now. It shows, amongst other things, and that there are huge variations in social groups and that those from deprived groups are disadvantaged overall.  The evidence supplies the opportunity to consider how better to support parents. Parents require more support to be accessed online and across specific programmes.

Local Authorities

Now that the Local Authorities have been given  the responsibility are there more mechanisms for auditing their performance?

Local government culture now involves cascading best practice from the better performers to the less able groups. Public Health England does has 9 local centres which are responsible for working with Local Authorities and helping to raise  performance.

Given the priorities placed on budgets and the fact that the amount of spend on obesity issues is small, is sharing best practice alone enough or will it take too long to make the improvements needed?

Budgets are stretched and local authorities are facing difficult times, but there are lots of things within their remit that could be done at little cost. This will necessitate being creative, innovative and looking at all options and thinking ‘outside the box.’

Project measurement and evaluation

In relation to the earlier point about measurement; it must be positive and about interesting young people in food knowledge. It must promote children as advocates in schools, also experimenting with projects like “farmers club” and “pop-up restaurant” in schools, where the children have the opportunity to become  involved in planning, execution and design. It is important to attract the involvement of parents too.

There should be a more rigorous approach to measurement and publicity.

We should consider how this Group’s report is being used; is it being made available  to other interested groups such as the Women’s Institute?

Food growing projects at school afford  an opportunity to unite food and physical education/activity.

The threat of the fringe is complicated; Professor Gately avers that children seek unhealthy foods because that is what they know, recognise and gravitate towards. They will find these foods even if the school gates are closed. There is a fundamental need to understand unhealthy lifestyles that lead to unhealthy eating.

It is possible to involve  some of these food providers such as  inviting  food vans into the schools, once they have been vetted for healthiness, as has happened in some schools in Scotland.

The curriculum in Scotland has a strong food standard, the curriculum in the UK in general is crowded and we can’t ask teachers to undertake additional duties. Non-term time is a good time for people to experiment and try out different approaches. In the US fire stations and other community organisations have become actively involved. A national innovation fund from which best practice is modelled would be a good idea. Policy in the UK regions also needs to be more ‘joined up’ with approaches and strategies taken in concert.

The meeting closed at 6.30pm