Ready Steady Cook! Empowering children to eat healthily

It is more than 15 years since Jamie Oliver declared war on Turkey — Twizzlers that is, not the country. Food was in the news again last week, with a government announcement of restrictions on junk food advertising. There is still much work to do. In England in 2018–19, 23% of children aged 4–5 were either overweight, obese or severely obese. This rose to 34% among children aged 10–11. Even more alarming, the prevalence of severe obesity among children aged 4–5 was almost four times as high in the most deprived areas than the least deprived areas. Food education and healthy eating — knowledge, knowhow and practice — must be at the heart of any long-term strategy for improving children’s physical wellbeing.

The 2005 series Jamie’s School Dinners led to a campaign to improve the quality and nutritional value of the food served in schools. Fifteen years later footballer Marcus Rashford’s calls during the lockdown for the government to continue providing free meals for children during the school holidays pushed school food policy back up the political agenda. It led to the creation of the Child Food Poverty Task Force, a coalition of charities and food businesses campaigning for the government to implement key recommendations from the National Food Strategy.

The National Food Strategy, written by Henry Dimbleby in 2020, warned that the country’s eating habits are a “slow-motion disaster”. It also warned of a toxic connection between child poverty, poor diet and hunger and recommended that a further 1.5 million children be offered free school meals. It stated that “only 1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards of a school meal”.

Meanwhile, a 2020 academic study carried out by researchers from the University of Essex concluded that provision of a free midday meal for all four- to seven-year-olds in primary schools will help to tackle Britain’s childhood obesity crisis. They identified a drop in the average BMI of the children whose progress they followed as they tracked the impact of the policy.

We have come a long way since 2006 when the current prime minister defended mothers who were reportedly pushing fatty foods through school railings to their children: “I say let people eat what they like,” he said. “Why shouldn’t they push pies through the railings?” One of the findings of the University of Essex study was that children’s BMI reverted to higher levels after school holidays of just one or two weeks. This strongly suggests that schools need to play a central role in any initiative to improve children’s diet.

School Food Matters is a charity founded in 2007 by a parent concerned about the quality of the meals served at her children’s school. Its mission, according to its website, is “to teach children about food and to improve children’s access to healthy, sustainable food during their time at school.”

According to its current five-year strategy document, the charity raises funds “so that we can offer free food education programmes to schools. We use our extensive knowledge, gained from delivering these programmes, to advocate for better school meals and vital food education.”

The document sets out three key challenges:

  • Food education — 75% of schools are not using opportunities to influence children’s eating habits
  • Food policy — There is a lack of leadership from government on school food and children’s health
  • Food provision — Children are developing unhealthy food habits in and out of school.

The LBL approach, designed for children between the ages of 5 to 11, organises learning around three elements:

  • knowledge
  • knowhow
  • practice

The LBL approach allows children to make the most of all aspects of life by integrating the subjects of the traditional curriculum into nine life-learning themes. The LBL approach makes life itself the primary purpose of the learning. The Body is one of the nine learning themes:

  • learning about the body itself — knowledge
  • learning how to look after the body — knowhow
  • applying the knowledge and knowhow — practice

The Body learning programme includes teaching children about nutrition and healthy eating as well as helping them to learn the basics of how to cook healthy meals, as outlined in the national curriculum design and technology subject.

School Food Matters

Click to visit this charity’s website and learn more about its work

End Child Food Poverty

Click to visit the website of the #EndChildFoodPoverty movement

Life-Based Learning

Click to learn more about the life-based approach to learning

Image at the head of this article by Zaki AHMED from Pixabay

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