The Big Interview: Keepers of the Flame

The Big Interview: Keepers of the Flame

The School Food Plan Alliance suffered a bitter blow with the collapse of the Children’s Food Trust and losing co-chair Linda Cregan, but will fight on as its work is far from done, its joint heads tell Jane Renton

The demise of the Children’s Food Trust earlier this summer was an undeniably bitter blow, not least for the School Food Plan Alliance, the voluntary organisation set up to protect the legacy of the School Food Plan, with its original 17 actions all aimed at reforming not just school food, but securing its rightful place at the heart of England’s education curriculum.

For the alliance, the loss of the Children’s Food Trust also meant the loss of one of its two joint heads, Linda Cregan, who as chief executive of the Trust, stepped down from the role she had shared for the past 18 months with school food campaigner Jeanette Orrey, the co-founder of Food for Life. Not only did the loss of Linda rob the alliance of a staunch ally but a link with an organisation which had in its 10 years of existence provided evidence-based statistics and case studies that underscored the importance of healthy school food and its importance in the health and wellbeing of children. The loss of the CFT is something that continues to be felt across much of the industry.

“The impact of that will be hugely felt across the industry, the demise of the Children’s Food Trust was a huge blow,” acknowledges Jeanette.

The battle, however, is far from over. Linda has been replaced by Stephanie Wood, like Jeanette a seasoned school food campaigner who first came to public prominence 10 years ago with her campaign, School Food Matters. Importantly, as joint head of the alliance, she represents the voice of parents in the alliance, which also consists of caterers, academics, and suppliers.

Both women agree that the task of fully implementing the School Food Plan actions is far from over. In fact, Stephanie believes that in some instances its reforms are in danger of being ignored or even reversed.

“I spoke to a parent yesterday who was having terrible trouble in persuading her child’s school to provide any sort of school meal service at all in what is actually a very affluent borough,” says Stephanie.

While the introduction of Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) for schoolchildren in their first three years of school had an undeniably beneficial impact on the economics of the school food industry, it is possible to argue that its unexpected introduction in 2014 obscured to some extent the School Food Plan reforms set in motion by the plan’s authors, John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby. Reviving those reforms and holding government to account over their implementation remains the key priority of the alliance.

“There is still so much work that needs to be done. Even in the 17 years that I have been campaigning for better school food, things are still not fixed,” says Jeanette.

The darkening economic outlook, which has already delivered higher food prices, rising wage costs and greater instability, is underscoring the necessity to keep the promised reforms carefully under the spotlight and high on the agenda of ministers at Westminster.

“I think the School Food Plan Alliance is still entirely relevant,” asserts Stephanie. “The important thing to stress is that we are still the go-to-place for government – they still want to engage with us.”

Government and the Department for Education (DfE) may still want to engage with the alliance, but cynics might point out that it was the DfE’s reluctance to pay for the research that it required that ultimately precipitated in the Children’s Food Trust’s failure.

It is not something that either Jeannette or Stephanie will comment on. They are, however, keen to not only continue discussions with the department but also with MPs across all party lines. They have actively embarked on a series of meetings with MPs, especially newer members, to enlist their support.

There are now 16 key School Food Plan actions, with four that have been identified by the alliance as being the most pressing. They involve:

1. Cooking and a review of all school food education, as well as a current campaign to develop an A Level in Food Studies
2. The application of food-based standards to all schools, including those 3,896 academies currently exempt because of when they were established
3. A proper evaluation of UIFSM as well as monitoring school food take-up
4. A national adoption of a school breakfast programme to be implemented alongside the UIFSM programme to alleviate the plight of the half a million children estimated to be going to school hungry

Cooking in the curriculum is theoretically compulsory for all pupils up to the age of 14; it was one of the first actions outlined by the School Food Plan. But as we saw from the recent evaluation conducted by the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, too few schools are actually delivering on the commitment: two thirds of primary senior leaders say they have insufficient funds, facilities and resources to deliver the knowledge and skills required under the national curriculum.

“Not enough has been done to bring school food into the education curriculum – it is still not happening uniformly enough,” says Jeanette.

One of the more significant aspects of the Food Education Learning Landscape evaluation was that for the first time, it included the views of children in secondary schools as well as those of their parents. Generally, we can conclude that the healthy eating messages that are being promoted by organisations such as Public Health England are not necessarily being reflected universally in every secondary school in the way that they should, despite some pockets of real excellence such as the healthy eating programmes at schools such as Poole Grammar in Dorset and Carshalton Boys Sports College in Surrey.

“In some cases [pupils and parents] report seeing, for example, a PE teacher with a Mars bar and Coca-Cola. Something that belongs to the wider obesogenic society outside should remain outside the school gates,” says Stephanie.

The Healthy Rating Scheme, designed to follow on from David Cameron’s anti-childhood obesity initiative, should in theory put pressure on schools to do more on this front. It should also lead to a greater level of evaluation – and engagement – by organisations such as Ofsted to monitor compliance with the requirement for better food education in schools. However, the proposed rating system, which is subject to further delay, is only a voluntary scheme and moreover only applies to primary schools. Secondary schools where the challenges are arguably greater fall outside its scope.

“It is all a bit behind schedule possibly by at least a year. We know the Department for Education is keen to get something moving because they have a commitment to do so,” says Jeanette.

The alliance also remains committed to ensuring that the key reforms to school food and school education remain firmly in place, rather than be allowed to wither on the vine as some say is inevitable.

Both Jeanette and Stephanie point out that all the alliance’s voluntary members remain firmly in place, giving their time, expertise and involvement on a pro-bono basis.

“This is a really powerful alliance and many of our members were part of the expert panel that helped develop the new food-based standards,” says Jeanette. “They certainly do not want to see their hard work evaporate.”

The organisation will continue to work with other organisations such as LACA, to provide a powerful voice that government can only ignore at its peril.

“LACA needs us and we need LACA,” asserts Stephanie, adding that “we are more powerful together”.

As both women assert, the School Food Plan involved ideas and actions that were too good to throw away. Jeanette and Stephanie – the keepers of the flame – intend to remain part of a wider collective voice that will fight to ensure they are preserved, first and foremost for those who matter most – the children that they were designed to benefit.