The School Food Standards:
Are they still fit for purpose? And what can school
caterers be doing?
School Food Standards
Ten years ago, the education security commissioned a review of the School Food Standards. These new standards came into force on 1 January 2015. All maintained schools, new academies, and free schools were and still are required to follow them.
Despite that new plan, pupils’ diets have not become much healthier. Compliance to these standards is also low. A Food for Life, ‘State of the Nation’ report from 2019 revealed more than 60% of schools were not meeting the School Food Standards (SFS) and that general non-compliance was rising. Caterers put this down to rising costs, inadequate Government funding and a lack of enforcement.
In addition to this, nutrition has moved on since the time of the then ‘new’ standards. Sustainability is also now much more in the forefront than it was then.
A coalition of 36 organisations, spanning charities, educational organisations and foodservice providers, all frustrated with school nutrition, have formed ‘The School Food Working Group’. They have launched a new manifesto, calling on the next Government to commit to ensuing every child has access to hot nutritious meals, food is sustainable and funding is improved, to better enable caterers to achieve such standards.
Here we take a look at what changes are needed to ensure children receive healthy, nutritious and sustainable meals at school.
What changes are needed?
Compliance to the current standards and availability to all: In the first instance the standards we have should be followed. For this to happen, there needs to be a robust system of checks taking place. In the same way EHO check hygiene standards, the quality of food should be checked. School meals should be available to all children at primary school, The Food foundation report ‘The superpowers of free schools meals’, found children who eat schools meals consume more fruit and vegetables, and have lower rates of obesity. The report also found these children’s attainment and attendance is boosted, with studies showing 4-8 weeks extra progress in Maths and English.
Reduction in sugar intake: In 2015 the Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) published a review on sugar; the ‘Carbohydrates and Health Report’. In its review of evidence, SANC found increased sugar is linked to tooth decay, weight gain, increased risk of type 2 diabetes and higher BMI in children. Free sugar (sugar added to food or present naturally such as honey, syrups, fruit juice) should account for no more than 5% daily energy intake. The National Diet and Nutrition Survey rolling programme indicates that, on average, children in the UK are consuming double the recommended amount of sugar.
Under the SFS, cakes and biscuits can only be served at lunch time and two desserts need to be 50% fruit based. However this still allows for children to consume sugar above the recommended intake whilst at school. Reviewing sugar on the menus would certainly be a good step to take, looking at how to make desserts with less sugar, choosing lower sugar yogurts and minimising readymade sauces as these often contain added sugar. We need to move away from a norm that a sugary dessert or cake is served at school every day.
Fibre: Under the SACN ‘Carbohydrate and Health Report’ fibre was also reviewed. There is strong evidence that diets rich in fibre, particularly cereal fibre and wholegrains, are associated with a lower risk of many health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, coronary events, strokes, type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer. As a result of the evidence, the recommended intake increased from 18g to 30g per day for adults. For primary school age children the recommendation is 20g and at secondary school age it is 25g per day.
The SFS requirements for starchy fibre are for high fibre starchy food to be consumed only once per week.
Any updates to the standards are likely to see an advised increase in fibre being served. To help meet the fibre recommendations, it would be advisable to offer more dishes with higher fibre starchy foods. To increase the fibre content of starchy foods, you could try using half and half white and wholemeal, to improve acceptance with pupils whilst increasing the fibre in their dishes.
Ultra Processed Food: There is increasing evidence that Ultra Processed Foods (UPFs) are detrimental to our health. Scientists disagree on whether it’s the processing itself or the fact that most UPFs are high in fat, salt, and sugar.
SACN recently published a review on UPFs. Whilst they concluded there is not yet enough evidence to recommend legislation, they stated more consideration is needed. SACN has therefore added this topic to its watching brief to be considered in June 2024. Whilst UPFs per se are unlikely to be specified in any updated standards, there is likely to be a greater focus on processed food.
We know foods high in fat, salt and sugar are detrimental for our health, so reducing these foods would be beneficial.
Where skills, time and space allow, cooking food from scratch is advisable.
Sustainability: While there seems to be an enthusiasm towards providing more plant-based options, the current School Food Standards don’t prioritise vegan or vegetarian options and still recommend meat to be on school menus three times a week. This is likely to be something that will change in any future updates. Gradual changes are likely to be more acceptable to your pupils, so you could start by adding bean / pulses to meat dishes.
You could also try blended meat products, for example pork and butter bean sausages. Switching half the meat mince in a shepherds or cottage pie for a plant-based mince, or simply looking at reducing red meat – particularly ruminants – on your ‘meat’ days is also a good idea.
Analysing your recipes using a carbon calculator such as Footsteps can be a useful educational tool to educate and inform. Carbon labels and the emissions and ‘food stories’ behind your dishes can help your pupils understand why changes are being made. Foodsteps can also help the catering team to develop menus and modify recipes to reduce the overall carbon footprint of the menu. Hero dishes are a great way to encourage and celebrate dishes that are nutritious and sustainable.
Signing up to the Proveg School Plates Awards can also help support your journey of creating healthier more sustainable menus. There is no cost for the award. Proveg have created a checklist of school food actions, most of which are evidence-based actions that are proven to help children to eat healthier and more sustainable meals. Depending on how many of these actions you have taken, you may be awarded with a Bronze, Silver, or Gold and Proveg can then work with you to maintain or better your standard.
Notes to take home about School Food Standards...
As it stands, the School Food Standards remain a requirement for state and maintained schools (and are recommended for private or independent schools).
Following these standards provides a good nutritional basis for your menus. This is your first point of call, if not currently compliant.
Whilst we wait for updates to the standards, to further improve your nutritional provision, you could also consider some of the following:
- Look at how to reduce overall sugar on menus
- Add more wholemeal starchy fibre to the menu
- Where possible cook from scratch to minimise ultra processed foods
- Aim to reduce overall meat on the menu
- Give beans a go! In the words of allmanhall’s procurement and sustainability director “a shout out to the humble bean”!
- Re-phase meat free days to more positive language such as ‘Save the planet day
- Consider signing up to Proveg School Plates Award
- Give carbon calculators such as Foodsteps a try to educate and communicate. And also to support menu planning and recipe modification to reduce your school catering’s carbon footprint.
- Use hero dishes to promote nutritious and sustainable menu options – good food shouldn’t cost the Earth!
For more information or support, please contact the team at allmanhall.