The Children’s Food Campaign has its fingers in many pies but just one agenda: to create a healthy food environment for all children, reports Morag Wilson.
What does a healthy eating zone look like? Does it mean locking the school gates, banning packed lunches and only consuming school food standards compliant food purchased in the school dining room? Or does a healthy eating zone go beyond the school gate, allowing pupils off-site but restricting the location of takeaways and banning junk food adverts?
Perhaps it’s somewhere in between but it’s an interesting exercise. How much can we expect the government to regulate and ‘red tape’ and how much should be down to better food education to allow children to make healthy choices? Of course, there’s no definitive answer.
The Children’s Food Campaign believes you have to pick your battles and use the expertise of other likeminded organisations to create a strong-willed coalition that pushes for action on all fronts.
It campaigns on a lot of issues, from restricting junk food marketing to children and pushing for the sugar tax (which was implemented on 6th April), to supporting the Save Our School Food Standards campaign to get academy schools to sign up to the school food standards. For many years it has been campaigning for a better system where all families in receipt of Universal Credit receive Free School Meals.
“We try to take a more holistic view of how all these different measures need to intercept to create a healthy food environment,” says Barbara Crowther, coordinator for the Children’s Food Campaign, which forms part of Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming. The Sustain charity represents around 100 national public interest organisations working at international, national, regional and local level. Each Sustain project or policy campaign is advised by a working party comprising relevant member organisations and other experts.
“You can’t do everything simultaneously, but working across a number of fronts is important,” explains Barbara. “Working on junk food marketing, school food and sugary drinks is important because all of those are factors that could contribute to an obesogenic environment for children.
“Because the Children’s Food Campaign is a coalition, we have everyone from early years through to people who focus on school food through to Cancer Research UK, local food projects, holiday food programmes for children in poverty. And because we have that network, hopefully we can strengthen each other.
“In the case of Free School Meals under Universal Credit, it has been a pleasure to work alongside The Children’s Society to levy the power of the Children’s Food Campaign and use our wider membership to support that particular campaign.”
The Children’s Food Campaign harnessed the power of its parent network to show the nation’s support for every child in poverty receiving Universal Credit to be eligible for Free School Meals. Responding to its Parents’ Jury, nine out of 10 members backed this view. It was a valuable statistic to add weight to the campaign ahead of the House of Lords debate which ultimately delayed proceedings.
Launched last October, anyone can join the Parents’ Jury so long as they have children aged between two and 17. While it’s not demographically representative and there are more mums than dads on there, it provides some interesting views on a range of topics.
The most recent survey revealed, for instance, that many parents believe there is a lot more to do to make schools healthy eating zones – from the meals on offer, to the healthy eating messages received throughout the school day, introduction of clearer policies on packed lunches, opportunities for children to learn by growing and cooking food, and the wider junk food and takeaway environment surrounding the school.
There was overwhelming support from parents to make school food standards apply to all schools, including the 3,896 academies and free schools stuck in the gap that exempts them from the standards. This was particularly relevant for parents who had children attending different schools and had witnessed vast disparities in the quality of school meals. However, many parents also suggested that the standards don’t go far enough. Sugary puddings was a particular bugbear of many respondents.
One parent wrote: “I have asked the school to ensure that my children aren’t given puddings but only the fresh fruit and yoghurt on offer to all the children. The current school food standards in England allow for very sugary puddings to be offered every day which isn’t healthy/appropriate.”
While many desserts will meet the school food standards and not contains lots of sugar, it is a common issue for debate as to why children are still offered a sweet hot dessert in school.
“They may not be sugary but it is still a sweet pudding and that’s building an appetite for that type of pudding,” says Barbara.
One parent wrote about the norms that are created by giving children sponge and custard or jelly and many suggested this mixed messaging doesn’t contribute to schools being healthy zones.
Transparency seemed to be a major factor in whether a parent provided a packed lunch for their child or not (although there was broad agreement to have policies around the contents of packed lunches) and transparency is a common theme to many of the Children’s Food Campaign’s projects.
“In all of the campaigns we run the need for transparency always comes through; the need for food labelling, the provenance of food, transparency over the foods that schools are serving and that parents know what their child has eaten,” says Barbara.
One parent was keen to keep their child away from looking at the contents of a packed lunch and being influenced not to have a school meal. “The packed lunches brought to school are so bad I don’t want my child sitting with them and having exposure to that kind of eating environment,” they wrote. “He’s quite fussy and school meals have helped him eat a wide variety of food. The school does not seem to do anything about the food in packed lunches.”
Parents seemed exasperated with the traditions of bringing sweets and cakes to school when it’s a child’s birthday (in a class of 40 that’s quite a lot of birthdays) and even teachers giving sweets as rewards. None of these can be restricted under the standards and it’s up to schools to impose a ban.
“One parent said there’s a ‘Haribo culture’ in their school,” says Barbara.
There are many more food dangers outside of school, though, and 115 out of the 141 parents surveyed supported the idea of stay-on-site policies for secondary schools to prevent their children from visiting takeaways or being influenced by junk food advertising.
The Children’s Food Campaign has contributed to some progress on these issues. There are now stricter regulations around advertising unhealthy food and drink online and in apps used by children and the Campaign has recently submitted evidence to the Advertising Standards Agency around non-compliance. Its Operation Eagle Eye carefully watches and reports on companies that target sugary food and drink to children.
Barbara is confident that the government will go ahead with a ban on the sale of energy drinks to children under 16 later this year and also that junk food advertising could get a 9pm watershed on TV.
“Where that will have an impact is family shows like Britain’s Got Talent and Saturday Night Takeaway, which before weren’t deemed to be children’s programming but if you ask young people they are among their favourite programmes,” she says.
Also gaining momentum is planning permission around hot food takeaways. The Mayor of London has proposed a ban on the opening of new hot food takeaways near schools and is encouraging councils to review the existing concentration of outlets around schools to work with them to make what they’re offering healthier. Now, around 20 local councils have started putting in place their own planning schemes.
It looks like progress will be made on both these issues and the Children’s Food Campaign will make sure it’s there the whole journey through, providing evidence and strengthening the debate using the voices of lots of different organisations. And the parent voice is a strong one to add to that arsenal.
“I would like to see a branding blackout zone in schools, where the psychological methods used by big brands to pose as ‘friends’ to young children are recognised as unacceptable and are tackled by schools,” said one parent.
These anecdotes add weight to the fight and the Campaign will be eagerly waiting to see if they are heard when Public Health England publishes its next report, or councils or the government set about change.
If and when they do, the fight doesn’t end there. While it celebrates the introduction of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, for instance – a campaign it has run for the past five years – it only sees this as the start towards tackling childhood obesity.
“There is more to do,” says Ben Reynolds, Deputy CEO of Sustain. “Industry spends millions marketing foods to children, much of which is unhealthy, and now we need to turn our attention next to this.”
No doubt once that ambition has been achieved there will be another battle to be won. And the Children’s Food Campaign will be there fighting.