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‘Make the new food standards work by incorporating them into a rigorous system of accountability’

Steve Quinn, owner and managing director of school catering company Cucina Restaurants, writes:

The government has just announced its new, simplified version of food standards for schools. As with previous versions, there’s much to applaud – a ban on some fatty snacks, a limit of two fried items a week, a limit on sugary drinks and mandatory availability of milk and water. These are sound guidelines for bringing about healthier eating in schools. The key to how successful they will be depends not only on how they are implemented, but also on how they are monitored.

There is concern in some circles that most existing academies and free schools are not obliged to sign up to the food standards. But what about the schools where the standards are mandatory? A ‘standard’, by definition, is an agreed level of attainment against which we can measure our success. So how can we go about comparing actual delivery against the standard? Almost everyone now recognises the importance of good eating in schools so it seems logical to me that we should pass this task to the schools inspectorate, Ofsted.

The heads and governing bodies that my company works with all give school food a high priority (we need that kind of commitment before we enter into any client partnership). But I recognise that this is possibly not the case in all schools. Busy educational agendas can easily create other priorities. It’s understandable that many will focus more closely on those things that are to be inspected, measured and judged. Thus, if ‘food service’ were to be integrated into the school inspection agenda, it would straightaway become a high priority for all schools.

Then, as with reading, writing and arithmetic, food service inspections could serve to bring dramatic improvements to the day-to-day delivery of food service. From a caterer’s point of view, I believe we need to embrace the inspection of school food service and in the process ‘educate the educators’ by opening our doors and showing the high standards it is possible to achieve. There are true pockets of excellence around the country which could serve as beacons in this regard.

Much progress has been made in recent years in developing and expanding food education and now some caterers are beginning to see themselves as full educational partners with their schools. But if measurement of a school’s food provision were to be taken into account in determining whether it was ‘satisfactory’, ’good’ or ‘outstanding’, school kitchens and canteens would begin to mesh their offering into their school’s broader curriculum. Then we would truly see the power of the food standards, acting as a potent force for improvement.

I also believe it is important for school food inspections to report on the correlation between the nutritional value of the food and the numbers of students eating it. No food is, of itself, nutritious. Food is only nutritious if it is eaten. A school may produce the healthiest school meals in the country, but if nobody takes them up, they’re not healthy.

There is, on the other hand, universal acknowledgement of the link between nutrition and attainment. When I was at school, footballers ate whatever they wanted. Now, they are on carefully designed diets to ensure they achieve peak performance. With regard to school food, we are only at the early stages of understanding this relationship, which is why we are currently planning research with a university team to explore it further.

So let’s all welcome the new school food standards and the great work of those who have devised and tested them. They stand to make a tremendous difference to the health of future generations as well as helping to tackle the dreadful problem of youth obesity. But let’s also make the standards work for us by incorporating them into the rigorous system of accountability that has helped drive up educational standards in our schools. 

Cucina Restaurants, founded in 2006, operates restaurants in state secondary schools and was the first in the UK to install trained chefs in school kitchens.

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