Apologies and European School Food

So poor School Food World has got off to a rather bumpy start. Having launched it when I was quiet, I am suddenly inundated with work and have had to set the site on the back burner.

But my ideal is to post about school meals around the world if not every day then every other day, and my intention is that I will get better at finding the time to do that.

So finding myself with an unexpected extra hour this morning I thought I would attempt to get back on track by highlighting a recent post on the European Food Information Council website about school meals and nutritional standards. Unfortunately it’s not credited so I can’t say who wrote it, but it is an academic style summary of the way food is served and provided to children in different European countries. It also cites a number of studies and further references which is handy for me to do additional research.

After pointing to the benefits that nutritious school meals can have for children and their learning, the article goes on to describe some examples of best practice in different countries.

I particularly like the idea of a ‘plate model’ that’s used in Sweden and Finland where all school meals are funded by the government. Although children receive their food from a central server, the plate model at the start of the process allows them to serve themselves, but shows them roughly how their plate should look at the end.

This way of engaging children with the food selection process is a fantastic way of teaching them how to construct a healthy meal for themselves. If food is simply dropped on a plate by one of the school caterers, how much are the children involved with understanding the way the plate is made up? By allowing children to construct their own plate, you can have a conversation with them about how much protein, dairy, vegetables and carbohydrates should be there, and what excellent lessons and understanding to receive at such an early age. Invaluable for them going into the future.

Of course for caterers in the UK portion control would be an issue, which is perhaps why this works in countries where the food is funded by the government. But I would love to see a UK caterer trial this – perhaps amongst juniors rather than infants – and see how it went. I think most children would be sensible and know not to take too much of one item. Controls could be used by offering second helpings if children are still hungry and food is available at the end of service. Or turn it into a game where children receive a sticker if their plate closely resembles the model. What do you think? Would you be prepared to let juniors serve themselves?

In France school meals are constructed from a series of basic elements. Each lunch consists of a main, a side, a dairy item and a starter or dessert. The main will consist of meat, eggs, fish, cheese or offal (can you imagine the faces of British children?!).

French standards apply to lunches and sound complicated but I suspect are more simple when you know them. Based on a 20 meal rotation, restrictions are placed on how often items are served. So at least 10 of the 20 meals must have cooked vegetables, eight meals will be served with a fresh fruit pudding, 10 meals will include starchy foods, cereals or pulses and so on. Portion sizes vary according to the age of the children.

Some of the Benelux countries – the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway and Denmark – as well as Portugal, Switzerland and Austria (and also New Zealand and South Africa) do not have a well established school meal system. Mostly that’s because children tend to go home to eat because the school day ends early in the afternoon. Finnish children are not allowed to bring a packed lunch.

The article concludes that although standards applied to school meals are to be applauded, they will only work if children like, choose and eat the meals. It cites some examples where children are involved with menu selection and taste testing, and this again I think can only be beneficial for schools, caterers and children.

Everyone in a school needs to be fully engaged with the discussion and provision of lunches or take-up will continue to falter. Head teachers, governors, parents and children should be involved with – and excited by – meal options and be involved with the choices. Time and again it’s been shown that where the school kitchen and lunch is fully integrated as a part of school life, and children are involved with growing ingredients, or designing the meals, or tasting them, that catering provision will thrive and take-up will climb.

I’d love to hear about schools where this is happening and thoughts about how do we get busy head teachers and governors to really get behind their food provision.

Providing school meals around the world

It’s natural that when you think about school meals your mind goes to the food your own children are eating, or the children in your town or eating, or your country, or – if you work in school food provision – the meals you’re helping to make and serve.

But part of the ethos of this site is not to only consider the task for the many involved in international school catering in developed or developing countries; those who are finding ways to improve our children’s nutrition, or even to help tackle childhood obesity. We also want to look at those who have the unenviable task of feeding children in countries where starvation is a real and serious issue. Those who depend on school perhaps not just for their improved nutrition, but for their only nutrition.

Mary’s Meals is becoming increasingly well known as a charitable organisation that works providing school meals for more than 650,000 children per day in 16 countries around the world. They have partnership programmes in the UK, USA, Ireland, Austria, Croatia, Germany and Italy.

Incredibly they estimate it costs only a little over £10 or $16 or €12 to feed one child for a whole school year.

This week I learned about the Eat Here, Feed There programme which is being supported by restaurants in the US. I specifically read here about a restaurant in Houston that donates the cost of a school meal supplied by the United Nations World Food Programme every time someone buys one of their crepes.

The decision to do this was made right at the inception of the restaurant – Sweet Paris – by the founders Ivan Chavez and Alison Young, and by the end of July, only a couple of months after the restaurant opened, they had already donated more than 24,000 meals.

Although I hesitate over the wording of the term ‘deserving children’ (let’s just assume they mean anyone who’s hungry) the programme means more to many than simply feeding kids. As well as helping break the cycle of starvation, it also means kids come to school – and stay there – and therefore gain an education which may hopefully lift them out of poverty in the future.

Programmes like this have so much value beyond just feeding children, but at the most basic level when one sixth of the global population suffers from malnutrition and six million children expected to die of starvation this year alone, they deserve recognition and support.

News round-up

It’s been a while between stories, so here’s a neat little round-up of innovations in school food around the world that caught our eye over the past few days.

In the US, school food provider Preferred Meal Systems has an online service that lets parents find out more about the menu and nutritional content of their children’s lunches and school breakfasts.

By logging onto www.schoolmenu.com parents in some districts will be able to access the nutrition information of each meal. And of course the meals now adhere to the new standards. The information is accessible in pop-ups as the cursor moves over the page.

Other information on payment etc. is also available, and there will also be blogs and information from a panel experts. You can read more about it here.

 

Researchers have shown that caterers can use the same techniques that marketers use to sell junk food, to help children make healthier choices in the canteen.

In advertising it’s not unusual to use familiar cartoon characters, TV icons and superheroes to sell cereals, pasta shapes or sweets, but researchers at Cornell University New York found that using well known characters on healthy products would also prompt children to choose them.

So when apples had an Elmo sticker (from Sesame Street) children picked them rather than choosing cookies or sweets. Read the original report with a link to the Cornell findings here.

 

There’s an interview here with Kate Adamick who has a new book out called Lunch Money: Serving Healthy School Food in a Sick Economy.

She runs a Lunch Teachers boot camp which teaches school caterers how to budget effectively and still serve fresh healthy meals.

 

School Nutrition Association in the USA has conducted a survey of foodservice professionals in the nation’s schools and found that more than 90% of those responding think that meeting the new standards will incur greater costs, and 67% of districts believe that the federal reimbursement for school meals will not cover the cost of producing them.

So, many have got creative when it comes to encouraging students to try and therefore buy the meals. More than 87% were doing taste tests with students on new menu items, and therefore engaging students in menu selection, while others were offering free samples to promote familiarity with new dishes. You can read the full report here.

 

In Rhode Island USA school caterer Sodexo has teamed up with a local farm which will produce fresh fruit and vegetables for schools in 11 communities. The Pezza Farm has turned over 15 acres to the project which will enable kids to eat fresh, local produce as part of their school lunches.

 

This Washington Post feature describes how school cafeterias in the US are using supermarket display techniques to encourage students to eat more fruit and veg. By placing bright bowls in easy to grab places kids were taking fruit more regularly, and some operators even taking fruit out into the playground for children to eat on the spot.

Others were marketing veg using labels like ‘mellow yellow corn’ to make their dishes sound more interesting, or using competition promotions to encourage children to make healthier choices, or even trying surprising and challenging ideas to throw down the gauntlet on hard to please kids with ‘Fear Factor Smoothies’ containing different ingredients like spinach.

But it seems to be paying off because teachers are already feeding back that classroom behaviours are improving.

 

A complete overhaul of the school cafeterias in Palm Beach County has renewed interest in school lunches as the restaurants now resemble a modern food court.

Instead of the standard counters and lines, in the ‘Cafe Atlantic’ students can visit different stands including Asian Xperience, Café Sol y Mar (Spanish), Mangia Mangia (Italian), Atlantic Gourmet Deli and Beyond Burgers to get their lunches.

As well as being modern and appealing to trendy teens, the stands reduce queues and waiting times for students who also benefit from better seating and four flat screen TVs.

The improvements have been a big hit with students at Atlantic High and will be rolled out to other schools in the area. Here’s the full report.

 

And finally, a new study has shown that changing the food that’s available in vending machines may be the best way to slow childhood obesity.

The study in the journal Pediatrics tracked teens in 40 states over three years and found a strong correlation between the children’s weight and the state rules governing so-called ‘competitive foods’ which are the freely available vended food and drinks outside the usual lunch programme.

Students in states which had strict laws on the kinds of food and drinks available in vending machines gained on average 2.2 lb less than those living in states that did not have such strict legislation, or even none at all.

Similarly, children that were overweight in the fifth grade had a much better chance of attaining a healthy BMI by the time they reached the eighth grade in states with laws, than those without.

This could show that in order for the new nutritional standards on school lunches to have the full effect, uniform laws on the products available from vending machines will also have to be introduced nation-wide. The full story can be read here.

 

Best practice and innovation in school food around the world