How far should schools shape future diets?

Sensemaking / How far should schools shape future diets?

As many children have at least one snack or meal at school daily, what role can schools play in nurturing children’s eating habits?

By Alise Perepjolkina / 15 Dec 2015

According to the UK’s Food Standards Agency, the past ten years have seen a significant transformation in thinking about what food should be available in school, with a lot of schools lately shifting from offering just enough food for a cheap price towards offering more plant-based and nutritious options.

With one in three children currently leaving primary school overweight or obese, a well-balanced school diet has a crucial role to play in combatting the rise of non-communicable disease. Providing a healthy food Is essential, as children need to receive essential nutrients to grow, develop and attend to academic tasks.

However, many children and young people fall short of dietary recommendations, eating too much food high in fat, sugar and salt and not eating enough fruits, vegetables and dietary fibre. According to the US State of Obesity project, many of them consume up to half of their total daily calories at school.

So what are schools currently doing, and what might they do in future, to influence the eating habits of schoolchildren?

The MUSE School in Calabasas, California is a private school, founded in 2006 by Suzy Amis Cameron and her sister Rebecca Amis, that encourages students, teachers and community to live sustainably. This school year 2015/2016 MUSE became the first school in the US to serve only vegan lunches and snacks - a programme it calls One Meal a Day for the Planet.The school sources almost half its organic produce from on-campus gardens and greenhouses thanks to its Seed-to-Table Program, which grows around 200 varieties.

The head of the school Jeff King says,“the largest consumers of water are not people but cattle. To truly deliver our mission of sustainability, we had to find a sustainable way of eating.”

MUSE made progress in September 2013, serving entirely plant-based meals one day a week to its 150 students. This method, however, raised nutritional concerns among children’s parents who claimed that children were not getting enough protein. The first year saw a 40% drop in student numbers. Several parents took a view that the school had no place dictating diet, claiming that food is very personal for each individual. According to King, the numbers have recovered since then, with new students being enrolled. 

King says that parents are often influenced by meat and dairy-industry lobbying, and this is what the school is fighting against. He argues, “the meat and dairy industry control a lot of the airwaves in the US – you’ll see ads daily for how healthy meat and dairy are.”

As part of the programme, the school provides students with nutritional education and teaches how food is grown through hands-on experience. The school is now looking forward to inviting families to sign up to the programme, with the possibility of extending to the local community and beyond.

Some public schools across the US are also reducing their reliance on meat products. Meatless Mondays, a public health campaign with the history of 95 years, encourages schools to offer all-vegetarian menu every Monday. In 2009 it expanded its program into the school sphere, with Baltimore City Public Schools to become the first public school system to adopt this approach. Since then, another 53 districts have adopted this method, including schools in Boston, Los Angeles, San Diego, Philadelphia and Detroit. More schools are working with the program to adopt meat-free proteins into menus that meet the requirements of the National School Lunch Program.

According to Diana Rice, the registered dietitian on staff with The Monday Campaigns, meat-free meal is something people can participate in without changing their diets fully. She says,”it teaches them from a young age that a meal doesn’t have to have meat in it to be a solid meal.”

America is not the first place to implement strict food policy. In the UK, an independent school of St Christopher in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, has been requiring its staff and pupils to eat vegetarian food since its foundation 100 years ago. The school provides vegetarian nutritionally balanced, protein-filled meals. As many children are not vegetarian at home, the school puts big effort in preparing a varied menu of appetising meals that would make students willing to try them.

It is uncertain how the school’s meat-free policy came into being, but taking into consideration that the school was founded on the principle 'to promote understanding among students of other cultures and religions,' it is presumed that vegetarianism is encouraged to ensure students and staff of all faiths can eat the same food together.

In 2014, the boarders at St Christopher’s reported complains regarding the vegetarian policy, claiming it to be illiberal: on return home, they said, other children can have meat, but they cannot. The head teacher Richard Palmer responded that boarders can call the local food chain and order a delivery of meat-loaded pizza.

St Christopher’s is not the only one to take on this approach. Since 2011, the borough of Islington removed pork from catering contracts for primary schools for the reason that young children of different religious and ethnic backgrounds, religiously or culturally forbidden from eating meat, may not know which foods contain pork.

An interesting contrast to this approach are the meat-related policies that are being implemented in France, home to Europe’s largest Jewish and Muslim communities. Several authorities are scrapping pork-free public school lunches, refusing to provide school dinners for children who do not eat pork in the name of secularism. Chilly-Mazarin is the latest city of several run by rightwing mayors to scrap pork-free options in school canteens. For the past 30 years, Chilly-Mazarin has provided non-pork alternatives to Muslim and Jewish children, but this changed from November this year. The new mayor, Jean-Paul Beneytou, sees it as a commonsense way to preserve public sector “neutrality”, but parents, staff and leftwing opposition politicians have responded to it as a deliberate stigmatisation of Islam, saying that is unfair to children by playing politics with school meals.

Protesters argue the controversial menu changes are being introduced by rightwing politicians to tell Jewish and Muslim children that to be truly French, they must eat pork. Pork has come to be seen as a battleground in the country’s debate over national identity and the place of Islam.

According to the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR), there are many other aspects of the learning environment that can influence students’ knowledge and feelings about food, as well as their access to it.

CEDAR reports that 60% of children in the UK do not eat school meals. Can schools work more closely with parents to address nutritional challenges and develop a joint approach to education?

While schools can provide an important setting for targeted nutritional interventions, the case of France points to the role of governments, too, in shaping school food traditions and nutritional education more broadly. In the UK, regulations currently oblige public primary and secondary schools to provide red meat at least two and three times a week respectively.

What policies would best enable schools and communities to shape healthier and more sustainable diets for the next generation?

Image credits: Flickr/ U.S. Department of Agriculture


The Guardian (12 November 2015) No beef allowed: inside the schools that have banned meat

The Guardian (13 October 2015) Pork or nothing: how school dinners are dividing France

The Huffington Post (3 May 2015) America is About To Get Its First All-Vegan School Cafeteria For Kids 

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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