Improving the image of school food

Improving the image of school food

Myles Bremner, director of the School Food Plan, urges the industry and the media to present the right brand of school meals.

The School Food Plan’s vision is simple, powerful and clear – flavourful, fresh food, served by friendly, fulfilled cooks in financially-sound school kitchens. Many school meal services already do this – a fact rightly celebrated in the School Food Plan. But for the general public, is the current image of school food aligned with the reality?

The publication of the School Food Plan and the announcement of infant universal free school meals have, in the main, been received and written about well. When talking about school food, journalists largely talk and write about school food as it appears today. Gone are the days, thankfully, where the opening paragraph reminisces about a stodgy leaden affair; instead they write about school food that is good, tasty and nutritious – food that children like. The Sunday Times published a School Food Plan survey last year that triumphantly showed that 77% of children described their school food as either tasty or very tasty.

We’ve read articles such as Giles Coren’s piece on lunch at Carshalton Boys Sports College in the Times, where he proclaims, ‘the standout dish for me is the salmon special with chilli and coriander’ and, ‘there’s a pasta bar, salads, and the puds, obviously, are historic’. You can read his Times article on page 24 of the School Food Plan.

“The food in most schools is miles better than it was eight years ago,” say Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent in the foreword of the School Food Plan. And the written word on all things School Food Plan in the main thankfully recognises this vitally important fact.

Action 12 of the School Food Plan is to ‘improve the image of school food’. It states: “We want parents to realise that school lunches are better than they used to be – and much healthier for their children than the alternatives. We have recruited brand guru Wally Olins (he has worked with big name companies and even whole countries on improving their image) and Richard Reed, co-founder of Innocent smoothies, to help us devise a strategy for spreading the word.”

The food suppliers in the school food market are well used to pumping effort, money and time into their food marketing, advertising and promotion. They know how important it is when introducing new food products to entice pupils (mainly secondary school children of course) to take up the latest pasta pot, street food wrap or drink. But this is very different from promoting the actual brand and image of school food as a whole.

The entire school food sector needs to work collectively together to work out how to best put across to parents and pupils the essence of what good school food is – what the brand is we want to portray. For children, it might be about the joys of eating together in a social and enjoyable environment, eating food that they know and like. For parents, it might be about taking comfort in knowing that what their children are eating is good for them and helping them to achieve, and be happy and healthy. Does it look like a favourite restaurant where the food and ambience is just right? Is it a photo of a tasty, attractive meal, or a face of a contented child, or a school cook? Is it the image of children and adults eating together, sharing food and conversation alike?

Of course, the school food brand we need is all of these things. Our collective challenge is to present the new words, the images and the behaviours that will conjure up all these positive images and create our new brand.

At the School Food Plan office we often talk about the brand images we want to remove. You know only too well that there are still parents, politicians, some journalists even, who still hold out of date brand images. Not because they want to stick to them, but nearly always because they simply don’t know how much better school food is. For these people, their images of school food might be the turkey twizzler, or a grumpy dinner lady, or an angry parent shoving chips through the school gate railings demanding she knows what’s best for her child, not the school.

So what of the new image of school food we want to create? I hope you agree the School Food Plan helps us describe it in words. And I think the written words in the media are also getting there with portraying our desired brand. But are we there yet with our visual images, which are so powerful in getting the brand and image across?

Cue the gratuitous prison tray photo. Or flight tray, or, actually, school food tray. For this is the visual image being scarred into our consciousness every time the BBC or the Guardian, or any other newspaper reports on the School Food Plan. Usually bright artificial-sports-turf-green (sometimes an iridescent ocean blue), it hits the reader square in the face – ‘ah yes, school food’. You sometimes have to squint to tell what’s in each of the sections; a jacket potato here, some pink stuff there. Is it pudding or does it go with the main meal? I just don’t know.

It’s always an arresting visual image or film that sticks in the public consciousness; 10 years ago it was the reconstituted bright pink meat that became the turkey twizzler. We mustn’t let it be the flight tray today!

Every issue of EDUcatering (and other school food trade magazines, of course) contains enticing photos of flavourful and fresh school food, happy children and friendly cooks. But in the public media, the flight tray image currently pervades. Is that what we want? Will it help us present the right brand for school food?

In the School Food Plan’s head teacher checklist, we suggest that flight trays should be replaced with proper crockery. With the implementation of infant universal free school meals we’ve got an exciting opportunity to make this move collectively across all primary schools. Will schools, local authorities and caterers really want to buy more of those brightly coloured trays? Or shall we seize this moment to treat children with the respect they deserve and serve them food on proper plates.

We have had some excellent discussions with the photo editors at the BBC, Guardian and other newspapers about filling their respective photo libraries with school food photos that promote the brand values we want to promote, and which demonstrate how our collective school food vision is being realised.
Let’s take this opportunity to say goodbye to flight trays for good!