Frozen nuggets, Jamie Oliver, and more. In this episode, Andy, Robin and Adam discuss healthy food in school cafeterias. Who makes the food decisions in schools? How different is our food culture to other countries? Plus, Adam talks of the benefits of good, healthy cafeteria food on school staff too.
The school of school podcast is presented by:
Subscribe to get the latest The School of School podcasts delivered to your inbox.
Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hi, I'm Robin Potter.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
This is the School of School podcast. Welcome to the School of School podcast.
The Maths — No Problem! Annual conference is back. Join us in London this November. World renowned speakers and experts will gather to discuss maths mastery in the post pandemic world. Be part of the conversation. Visit mathsnoproblem.com for details.
Welcome back everyone, another episode of the School of School podcast. Here with Robin and Adam. Say, hi guys.
How you doing?
So what we're going to talk about today is we're going to talk about should the food in schools, food that's available for pupils in school, be healthy? Is that even important? Or how healthy should it be? I kind of already know what you guys are going to say, I think. But anyway, let's just see.
Okay, well, that was a good episode. Thank you.
Well, the first thing that comes to mind is, do you remember that Jamie Oliver special where he goes to Italy, he goes into the schools in Italy, and everything is made by a group, usually a group of women and they made lunch for the school every day. And there was pasta, there was vegetables there, everything was freshly made and made that day and made on site and provided to all of the children at that school.
And then they went and they looked at the kids in the UK and what they were getting. Everything was processed. Would be maybe a couple of, I don't know, sausages or anything that was in a package. And he kind of looked at what was on their tray and the kids would have two cans of soda and some french fries with gravy on it, and that's all they were having for lunch.
And then looking at performance throughout the day. And it didn't mean just academic performance, it meant were kids awake after lunch, were they completely in kind of a sleep state because of what they'd eaten, had they hit their sugar high and now they were crashing? And it was very obvious that food has a huge impact on learning. And I know Jamie Oliver worked quite hard at trying to get healthier meals in place in the UK once that series had aired.
Thinking of my own kids, yeah, same kind of... There's not a lot of nutritional value in the things that are offered in the cafeteria at their school and they tend to bring their own lunch with them to school. But I would say there needs to be a giant upgrade in what is available and perhaps some things removed from schools to avoid them choosing those unhealthy options. Maybe they need to have less options and healthier ones.
How do those decisions get made? So Adam, maybe let's talk about the UK. So if you're running a primary school, who decides what goes into the cafeteria?
So it depends. You can buy into a service, you can buy into of local authority service and they'll provide you with cooks and whatnot. And they'll have a budget based on the number of people that take up school lunches or whether you've got the pack lunches or those sorts of things. And with that budget, what can they buy and what can they make?
And I think the other thing is that the reality of some schools is that... I mean, I had one of the most fantastic teams that any school could ask for with the sort of head chef, Linda. She was magic, man. She could make the budget that she had really sing for these children. The school dinners were really well prepared, made from scratch, all of those sorts of things. So we were very fortunate that we had that. We also had a new build school, so our kitchen was fantastic.
So some schools aren't as fortunate as that. And I remember when... Sorry, I shouldn't laugh, it's not funny at all. I remember when... It's sort of the organisation of it all. I've made our one school in isolation sound great, but I remember when it was going to be free school meals for the younger children, for key stage one. And I remember they sent out questionnaires to say how equipped are you to sort your school out to feed the children? And they sent them out for the cooks and the school to respond, which sounds again fantastic, makes sense.
But there's a number of schools in the UK that don't have kitchens and don't have cooks. So these things went unanswered. And then schools didn't even have a kitchen and there was the expectation to get this done. And then they ran into, the government runs into problems of there weren't enough ovens in the whole of Europe in order to upgrade all of these sorts of things that happen.
So I think that the problem that we've got is some schools, depending on the uptake, kind of the victor or not... Actually, it depends on the success. So the more children that take it up, the better buying power you get, the better you buy, da da, all of those sorts of things. It's subsidised. The amount that we are talking about, you've got to be quite creative and quite good to make it work. It's a tricky one because schools can decide. And ultimately, in a lot of UK schools anyway, parents can decide too. If I just give a child lunch, which leads to other issues about at what point do you start judging what's a healthy pack lunch and what's not, right? And that can get into pretty muddy water as well.
But I think that there are standards. There are standards that all schools have to meet. The nutritional value of the meals that they produce are tested by local authorities or some testing agency to ensure that they meet them.
I think... I just wonder, and maybe the economics of it all isn't right at the moment, but I just wonder... It's so little. It's frightening how little amount that you get to produce good meals that are nutritious and enjoyable. And I think that that's part of it, is you can make something nutritionally right. You could probably take a pill for that, but is that enjoyable? There's a lot of work to go that you either commit fully and say these are the sorts of things that we're offering, because some schools it's sort of like the haves and the have nots. You go to some schools for school dinners and it's just magic. And then others that you just don't want to go near. So it's hard to get quality assurance across the board I think.
Well, so quality assurance means different things in different contexts. So if you look at some kind of national standard of quality. What are the measures? It's like a chemistry, so much of this, so of that, not too much sodium, not too much of this, none of these chemicals or whatever, whatever the measures, but it's a chemistry thing. It's got nothing to do with the appeal of the food or whether or not... I don't think you can reduce nutrition right down to a chemistry thing. Maybe you can. I don't know.
Maybe some nutritionists would argue that, but there's more to it than that, right? There's the care in the selection of the grade of the food itself and is all chicken created equally, right? You know could say, I don't know, is a chicken nugget the same thing as free range chicken thigh-
Real chicken breasts.
...if they weigh the same.
Obviously they're not equal, right? So there's differences in there and is cost the factor that determines the quality or is it something else? You can make the argument about all kinds of things.
So you could feed someone a very healthy nutritious meal for not a lot of money, but it might not be the easiest way to do it, right? The easiest way to do it is to take stuff out of the freezer, throw it in a deep fryer, or throw it in the boiling water and warm it up and say, Here you go. Here's your X frozen chicken, your X frozen, whatever it is, chips, your X frozen vegetables, here you go, here's your meal. All boxes tick.
Or could you engage all the local Italian women, like in Italy, I'm just saying Italian women for that point, to say, "Hey, why don't you guys come over and prepare food for the kids every day? Here's your budget." And they use fresh local ingredients to make an appropriate meal for the kids every day. That's not necessarily more expensive than the other option, but it's not as convenient because someone has to go to the shop and buy the stuff and it's not delivered by a service where every-
I think the other thing too is you have to know what to do with it.
So that's where... I look at the team in the kitchen, the last school that I worked at and they loved cooking, they loved it. So often I'd get a little knock on my door, "Can you just try this for us, Adam? Can you just have a wee taste of this?" I'm like, "You beauty, of course, this is fantastic." But you could see the excitement of, oh, is he going to like it? Is this good? And I think that, of course, that makes a difference and amongst it.
But the knock on effects of that as well were quite interesting, in that you had more staff taking up those meals and sitting with the children and eating those meals. And I think that when you start seeing that, that's a really lovely environment to have. And it's not something you say to your staff, "You must sit with the children to eat," unless they're wee. But it's those sorts of knock on effects as well that what's eating in our society, maybe that's a broader thing as well, is that…
I know this is a complete segueway into something else. If I travel with my son, we'll always do a food tour because it's the best way to learn about the history, I think, and the influences in countries. And I think that that food is such an important aspect. And I know, I'm fortunate, I've been to Italy, Robin, and I think that food is placed very high up in terms of importance and taking time for lunch, or the conversation over lunch. Whereas, I think it's a bit more industrial in a school where you're getting people through. But I just think having that's also part of it. But, of course it's got to be nutritional. It has to be. It has to be good and it's got to be something that's going to give children everything they need.
And that's a whole other question because... Well, first of all, I did want to comment that they did note in this documentary that Italian kids, they recognised something like twice the number of types of vegetables from the age of four versus some of these other countries. They knew what these vegetables were because they ate them. And so perhaps they had a wider range of pallette to eat these healthy things.
So the next challenge you have is even if you're bringing in healthy food into the cafeteria, it has to be palatable to your audience. Because otherwise, what about kids who just, that's what their parents do. They just open up some frozen meal and heat it up at dinner time and they're not used to eating vegetables or they don't like food other than just basic, I don't know-
Yeah, like chips.
Yeah, so then you've got the challenge of you bring in healthy food into the cafeteria, now you got to find a way to get them to eat it. So culturally, I think that's the challenge.
Not everyone is used to making meals from scratch.
I know lots of kids who have grown up to have quite expanded pallettes now, but as young children it had nothing to do with what... Or maybe it did. I don't know. I don't really know what they ate at home. But, they, as young kids would only eat pasta with cheese or french fries. That was their staple diet. Maybe slices of white bread with butter and jam or something. But no more than that. That was really the repertoire of food and what do you do with those kids in cafeteria? But that always exists.
I think you need to have a variety of healthy options in the cafeteria. That's important. I think the challenge seems to be basically the system isn't set up to support it while in Italy it is, right? So in Italy, it's part of the culture. There's an expectation that, hey, you're going to feed my kids chicken fingers and chips maybe once a month, but that's not what we're eating every day. That's not okay. My kids want to eat a rocket salad and... Maybe not a rocket salad, but maybe they do in Italy. That wouldn't be abnormal for kids to eat that with some fresh tomatoes and a bit of mozzarella cheese, some balsamic vinegar and olive oil. That's a staple food for them, just like... And they know, like you said, they know lots of vegetables and they know how to eat them.
I don't think we have a system that could support it in the UK. I don't think we do in Canada either. I don't think we would be able to support it. It would require an organisation to take this problem head on, have the right kind of funding and the right kind of gravitas, maybe backing by some celebrity chefs or whatever, to take this problem on and solve it. Even then, I don't know that it would be possible.
So then you've got the other challenge here in that, like you said, having people get on board to support this and get it into schools and have that backing and maybe it is some kind of influencer that is going to make it a national priority to have healthy food put into the schools.
The other point I wanted to make there was they also looked at schools for kids that are troubled, troubled teenagers, for example. And what they found was when they brought in healthy food, and that's what they fed them, it was like they filmed these classrooms and the kids were all calm. They were listening, and they said it was night and day. So these kids weren't out of control. They weren't misbehaving at all. And yet, all of them were eating the same things at lunchtime and there wasn't these other options for them. And what a difference it made. So, you'd have-
I think on the... Oh, sorry. I was just about to... Sorry, you go Robin and I'll jump in afterwards.
Nope, please, go ahead.
No, I was just going to say, I've also worked in the equivalent of middle schools and spent a bit of time in high schools. And I think the importance, again, of having decent food then, because one of the things that I found staggering is if you hang out by an entrance, not dodgy, but if you hang out by an entrance at a school, at secondary school particularly, some of the things that children are walking in with, or when they're old enough to be given money, this is my lunch money and it's like a two litre bottle of pop and a bar of chocolate, and all of these things. And you're just thinking, "Man, this is not... A) It's not going to sustain them for the day. And B) I don't know what the effects are going to be in terms of blood sugar spikes, learning, all of those sorts of things."
But I think that then goes to your point, Robin, about the importance of fueling our brain, the importance of fueling our body properly so we function well. And sometimes that choice needs to be taken away at times and say, here's an environment where we can make it pleasurable, good, all those sorts of things, but it's also going to benefit you, teach you about what other food looks like. So I think it is a massively important thing.
But my experience in schools is it's a really tricky one. It's a really hard one. And we have not even touched on pack lunches. How prescriptive should we be to parents to say, "Hey, excuse me, but that's not right." And I've had some of those conversations and they are tough, boy, cause my decision about what might look like a good pack lunch and what someone else might do, that's a whole different can of worms.
Yeah, it is. I think what we can all agree on is there's a tremendous room for improvement, but there's also huge challenges, a lot of them having to do with funding and with infrastructure. But you do wonder who's worrying about this right now? Who's worrying about this?
Because one of the interesting things that we need to accept as a society is that in the last, let's say couple of generations, especially for the western world, there's a higher probability that you're going to die from some obesity related illness than from starvation in the first time in history. I don't know exactly at what point it switched, and it's different in different countries and parts of the world, but if you look at where any of us live, you're more likely to die from some obesity related, whether it be diabetes or cancer or whatever it is, than you are from starvation.
Oh yeah, 100%.
Processed food and availability of two litre bottles of soda and sugary soda and chocolate bars and stuff, the abundance of it is having a severe impact on the health and it's not going in the right direction. So someone should think about it, really.
Well, we've started the conversation, maybe someone will pick it up from here.
Lunch — No Problem!
Lunch — No Problem! Sounds good. I like it.
All right. Nice talking to you guys again. Bye everyone.
Thank you for joining us on the School of School podcast.