Interview: Learning life skills with the School Food Plan Alliance

Interview: Learning life skills with the School Food Plan Alliance

Last month, members of the School Food Plan Alliance (SFPA) met at the Houses of Parliament. With 17 on-going actions to carry forward, SFPA co-chairs Jeanette Orrey MBE and Stephanie Wood, are determined to keep the direction of the meetings focused. With Henry Dimbleby as guest speaker at the meeting, the chairs decided to explore how the National Food Strategy could get schools delivering food lessons. Despite food education being a mandatory subject since 2014, this vital life skill isn’t being taught in enough schools and the impact is being felt throughout society.

“There are some great examples of brilliant work, and we never want to underestimate that or under value it,” says Jeanette. “However, we know that delivery is patchy, and this is partly because the guidance came in without any sort of funding or inspection.”

Food education was an action within the School Food Plan, so the Alliance wants to help teachers understand the importance of food education and ensure that every school is delivering these vital lessons. There are two avenues to making this happen – one is what Alliance members can do and the other is what government can do. The government task is simple – investing in teachers and training to make sure they can deliver what is expected of them; however, until this happens, it is going to be down to the SFPA and like-minded NGOs to show schools how to work with the resources they have.

So how can the National Food Strategy help? Over the next year, Henry Dimbleby and his team will be speaking to people from all corners of the food industry to uncover what is wrong with the food system and what needs to be changed and, having led the School Food Plan in 2012, school food is an issue close to his heart. The SFPA meeting gave Henry the opportunity to use the expertise in the room to gather more intelligence and to think of creative ways to get more schools cooking.

After breaking out into different groups, SFPA members came up with a range of ideas to encourage more schools to teach food education. In many cases, schools have limited resources or do not have access to kitchens, however as Jeanette points out, a lack of resources doesn’t have to be a barrier to engagement, so this was one area they knew they could expand on.

“You don’t need a lot of kit to teach cooking in schools,” adds Stephanie. “In secondary schools, it’s great if you have access to a food room, but schools without a kitchen can still get involved. One example of this can be preparing cold dishes, which don’t require heating equipment, but still allows students to spend time learning about nutrition and healthy foods.”

Another way the SFPA can help is by increasing parent’s awareness of food education. Parents need to question schools and governors about their child’s food lessons to ensure that headteachers understand the importance of food education for pupils of all ages. School caterers and food service providers also have a responsibility and should be encouraged to get involved and support schools in fun and interesting ways.

“Some school caterers have been great at offering help to schools to deliver food education and there are lots of examples of really successful partnerships.” explains Stephanie. “But even when contract caterers offer support, if the headteacher isn’t behind the initiative, food education just won’t fly.”

Skills for life
Over the past few decades, society has changed and with it so has the education landscape. From including hands-on lessons such as needlework, home economics and woodwork to name a few, schools used to help set children up for life. Now, however, it is coming to light that students are leaving school with little to no life skills and as a result, they are struggling to deal with life outside of the classroom.

Understandably, people are questioning why life skills are not included on the curriculum. The Welsh Youth Parliament for example, recently took to the stand to highlight the lack of education of everyday life skills, such as learning about mortgages and tax. But really, these lessons need to be extended to cover everyday skills as well, such as cleaning, self-care and cooking.

As Jeanette explains, there is a lot of good work going on in schools, but ideally, they want everyone to be doing it. “What we see is that some of the younger generation do not know how to cook and we need to change this,” explains Jeanette. “We need to have an example of a proven framework and then have the government implement this into every school, because by providing food education you are giving children skills for life.”

SFPA members are working hard to ensure that the hard-won action of cooking on the curriculum is not lost. When seven out of 10 jobs are connected to food in some way, shouldn’t the curriculum be preparing young people for careers in food?

“Food is such a rich topic,” explains Stephanie. “Apart from practical food skills, students can explore everything from the politics of food poverty to the absurdity of food waste, and with young people increasingly aware of climate change, they can explore how food choices impact on the planet. There’s enough for food education to be a standalone subject.”

In an ideal world, schools would have enough funding to have fully equipped classrooms dedicated to cooking, with teachers specially trained in food education, and a curriculum that provides pupils with skills that will prepare them for life outside of the classroom. The reality, unfortunately, is far from this, so until that day when budgets are increased and children can access classroom kitchens, teachers will need to get creative. Thankfully, pupils can learn about food without having access to a kitchen, such as exploring different tastes and textures of fruit and vegetables, to learning about the different facts of what constitutes as a nutritious meal. Hopefully, by sharing this message with parents and teachers, schools will be more inspired to get food back onto the school timetable, and not just a topic for lunch.