Original article in soil association.org

Today, experts in food and nutrition joined Minister of State for Education, David Laws MP, as the Minister shared his thoughts on the importance of placing quality at the heart of successful school meals. He highlighted the opportunities for caterers arising from the School Food Plan to increase meal take up and the vital role they play in child health. He commended caterers for their herculean efforts in what he called the biggest step forward in school food since World War Two.

The School Food Plan Briefing was hosted by the Soil Association at City Hall, London, as part of National School Meals Week. The event brought together school caterers and industry stakeholders and an expert line-up of speakers, to discuss the key role of food providers in boosting school meal numbers by serving good quality, fresh, sustainable, locally sourced school meals and kick-starting a positive change in food culture and dining experience.

The Soil Association-led Food for Life Partnership is playing a key role in supporting the School Food Plan and increasing school meal take up, with their Catering Mark offering a framework to promote high quality and well sourced meals.

Other speakers included Dr Peter Bonfield – author of the Plan for Public Procurement: food and catering, Myles Bremner – Director of the School Food Plan, Carrieanne Bishop – Chair of Lead Association for Catering in Education (LACA), Peter Devonish – head teacher at Dereham Neatherd High School, and Dr Susan Jebb – Professor of Diet and Population Health at the University of Oxford and member of the School Food Standards Panel.

During his keynote address, David Laws announced a new focus for the school food support service, where they will proactively contact infant schools with low take up, the scheme will have capacity to support 1000 schools.

He said: “My message is: “Quality really matters”. And this is our challenge for 2015. I would like to see all schools and their caterers holding – or working hard towards – a quality award like the excellent Catering Mark.

“Through the Food for Life Catering Mark, schools leaders are able to choose caterers who are committed to providing fresh, sustainable, locally-sourced and high quality food. This not only provides children with nutritious food, but also provides parents with reassurance that their children are being fed responsibly.”

The School Food Plan drew the link between a sustainable school meals provision and child health: “Eating school dinners is better for children. It is also better for the school’s finances. A half-empty dining hall – like a half-empty restaurant – is certain to lose money. In order for the school food service to break even, average take-up needs to get above 50%.” Since the Plan’s launch in July 2013 the Department for Education has commissioned the Food for Life Partnership, Children’s Food Trust and the Design and Technology Association to support schools with below average take up and delegates today heard about how that support will be delivered to schools.

Libby Grundy, Soil Association Director of the Food for Life Partnership said: “Caterers increasingly understand the vital role they play, not just in providing a school meal that meets quality criteria but beyond the school kitchen. Where caterers and school cooks get involved in the school and community we see school meal numbers rise, which is great for child health and leads to a sustainable school meal service.”

Carrieanne Bishop said: “This is an exciting time for school food. The vision for a healthy, sustainable school meals service has been clearly set out, out and it is fantastic to be here with the people who are making these improvements happen on the ground. A joined-up approach is essential if we are to raise the bar for school food – for good, and the School Food plan offers caterers the chance to be at the forefront of this change.”

The event took place during LACA’s National School Meals Week, and on Food for Life Partnership’s national Roast Dinner Day. Delegates were provided with a Gold Catering Mark Standards roast dinner-themed lunch.

Catering Mark Standard meals are served daily in over 25% schools in England. There are now over 950,000 Catering mark meals served each day across a wide range of public and private sector institutions. The Catering Mark supports recommendations in the new School Food Standards that food is fresh, sustainable and made from locally-sourced ingredients as well as providing independent endorsement that caterers are meeting these standards. It has also been cited by Government’s recent Plan for Public Procurement as a way to guarantee a good score across the Plan’s Balanced Scorecard.

The Food for Life Partnership is delivering packages of support to 1,000 secondary, middle and junior schools and academies in the Midlands, North of England and London to boost below-average take up. Each package, worth over £2,000, will include training, action plans, tailored resources and one-to-one support, all designed to kick start meal take up. Funded by the Department for Education, it is free for eligible schools to participate.

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