The EDUcatering Forum highlighted how, with a few simple tricks and tweaks, pupils can be encouraged to make healthier choices. Is this the answer to preventing childhood obesity?
Morag Wilson reports
We all know that childhood obesity is a huge issue. And we’ve all been to events where everyone has spent the day lamenting the fact, citing figures that a fifth of children start school overweight or obese and a third leave primary school in this condition. And there is never any practical outcomes of these events.
What’s more, the government’s Childhood Obesity Plan Chapter 2 pays only the minor lip service to schools and their possible impact to stop childhood obesity. Surely, they have a role to play and it’s not all down to marketing and reformulation?
More than one speaker at the EDUcatering Forum mentioned that schools are responsible for just 20% of food consumed by children in a year. While that’s not much, it is a significant amount. And what’s more, that statistic ignores the fact that schools could be a place where children are educated about healthy eating which will equip them with the knowledge they need to make healthier choices when eating on the other 80% of occasions.
However, education takes time. Convincing children that greens are good for you takes time. And while we’re doing that, could we also be persuading children to eat more healthily, even without them knowing, nudging them towards the right choice?
This was the focus of the EDUcatering Forum, which took place at Haberdashers’ Hall on 28th November. Taking the title, The Power of Positive Psychology: reshaping children’s bad food habits’, the day’s speakers shared their experiences and expertise in creative a positive food culture for children and looked at how ‘nudge behaviour’ could make small but effective change for good.
But what really is nudge psychology? To explain the concept, our first speaker of the day was Dr Jeremy Leach, who also happens to be the son-in-law of our very own back page columnist Pat Fellows. So among the odd mother-in-law joke, Leach delivered a lesson 101 in behavioural science. How we think and act is not always logical, he said, and it’s why we prioritise today and not tomorrow.
Nudge, said Leach, has been used for many years by government and local authorities to alter people’s behaviour in a predictable way without actually banning anything.
Behaviour insights are at their most effective when they are easy for people to do (set a default to an option you want people to take, such as having to opt out of organ donation, for instance); when they are attractive and catch people’s attention or are personalised to you; when they are social (if we’re watched we behave better and we’ll also follow a crowd); and if they are timely (interventions are more effective before a habit forms).
Leach has vast experience of working with councils to nudge individuals to do things, be it to watch their speed on the roads or get their tax paid on time. By just adding the line ‘nine out of 10 people pay their tax on time’ can drastically lead to more timely payments, while an even more effective nudge is taking the personalised route: ‘You are one of a few people who have yet to pay your tax for the services we all enjoy’.
Armed with our new understanding of nudge, we heard about some instances where the theory has worked in schools. Meg Longworth, head of nutrition and public health at Chartwells, reported the findings of a brand new pilot in East Sussex, appropriately titled ‘nudge nudge’.
Taking place in the six weeks before the summer holidays, the pilot took six nudge groups of schools at 18 secondary schools and ran six different nudges:
1. A control group where nothing changed.
2. Follow Your Heart. A red heart logo was printed against healthier items on the menu, on labels and on counters. (Children actually associated this with being the chef’s favourite rather than as being healthy)
3. Win with Words. More descriptive words were used on the menu to describe dishes, such as ‘authentic’, ‘vibrant’, and ‘crunchy’.
4. Positioning, Placement and Promotion. The healthier items were positioned first on the servery and fruit was placed at the till, while the healthier dish was listed at the top of the menu.
5. Education. No food offer was changed but the Beyond the Chartwells Kitchen education programme was held in classrooms, in assemblies and cookery demonstrations were given.
6. Nudges 2-5 were all introduced.
By the end of the pilot, both Follow Your Heart and Positioning, Placement and Promotion had led to an 8% increase in children choosing healthier dishes in those schools, while Win with Words actually led to a 3% decline, suggesting not many children read the menu! The Education group saw a 2% increase and the sixth group involving all interventions saw a 6% increase but interestingly, the healthy choices noticeably increased following an Education assembly.
There were other really encouraging findings from the pilots, such as a 23% increase in sales of main meals containing oily fish, which is often a difficult sell to pupils.
Chartwells will now look at rolling out ‘nudge nudge’ to secondary schools and will monitor the results further, as well as continue to promote Beyond the Chartwells Kitchen, which is already educating 20,000 children a month on healthy eating.
Another caterer to have trialled nudge is CH&CO, and nutritionist Amanda Ursell and nutritional business partner at Principals by CH&CO Rory Larkin, talked more about this. The first trial had actually been done with staff at CH&CO’s Gatwick Airport restaurants across two sites in separate parts of the venue. Ursell explained each process of the trial, from training staff to log sales of vegetables with each staff meal to gathering baseline data.
Thankfully, that baseline data showed that 52% of people purchased vegetables with their meal, meaning the caterer could make the claim that ‘most people choose vegetables with their meal’. Two weeks before the trial that figure had dropped to 41%, but while the posters went up it was 44% and even rose to 49% once they went down.
Rory then explained how this trial was adapted for schools to encourage uptake of slow release, low GI porridge for breakfast rather than cereal. During the two-week poster trial, over 70kg more porridge was sold.
The Forum also welcomed the charity ProVeg International to talk about its nudge campaign to encourage more plant-based eating, School Plates. Programme manager Amy Odene highlighted how by making simple changes to the menu, schools could improve pupil health, help the environment and save money.
The programme challenges caterers to offer a meat-free meal every day that is accessible to all; to make the meat-free dish different from the meat one (ie not to have a shepherds pie and a veggie shepherds pie on the same day); to go completely meat-free on one day a week (or even call it an emission-reducing day); to change the language of the vegetarian dish so it’s not inferior (eg call it a burger with a ‘v’ sign rather than a chickpea burger); and take red processed meat off the menu.
The campaign has in a short space of time got school caterers to commit to 3.1m meat-free meals over the next 12 months.
Eating veg was a big topic of the day and it certainly goes hand in hand with reducing obesity. Jo Ralling from The Food Foundation excitedly told us about its deal with ITV to create an advert for the Veg Power campaign which will be aired from January in breaks for Coronation Street, The Voice, Dancing on Ice, the launch of Britain’s Got Talent and other big shows.
Ralling called for support from caterers to join the campaign and take it offline with free school packs for Key Stage 2 and even running their Veg of the Week on the school menu.
But could we be nudging children as young as two towards eating more veg? Kate Morris and Sally Brown from the Purple Kitchen and the Flavour School talked about their approach to getting children in Early Years to use their five senses to introduce new foods and to increase their vocabulary beyond ‘yummy’ and ‘yuck’. Through sensory food education, children have been found to improve their confidence in trying new foods and importantly, the programme never forces children to taste a food, that last step is reserved for them to taste it if they want to.
The pair are behind the Cbeebies programmes ‘i can cook’ and My World Kitchen, the latter exploring the idea of sensory food education and getting children to describe an ingredient in its raw form and then when cooked.
The role of the school caterer
Fast food outlets, TV adverts, retailers, are all responsible for reducing childhood obesity. But what about schools? What is the caterer’s role in all this? Can we influence the 80% in addition to the 20%?
ASSIST FM is having a go with its Inch by Inch for Scotland campaign, a programme that reaches some of the lowest income families yet has received no funding from the Scottish government, stated Alan Cunningham, director of Totalize Media.
“Scotland is the second most obese country in the world,” said ASSIST chair Keith Breasley. “But don’t be too smug as England is sixth”. With 260,000 obese children in Scotland, there is quite the challenge ahead.
The campaign was about changing mindsets, healthy eating and physical exercise, but in small steps. It includes YouTube videos (the kind most likely to reach non-TV-watching teenagers) on how to cook a healthy Pot Noodle, exercises that can be done at home on the spot, and importantly is delivered by young people with a similar background to those being targeted with the programme.
Meanwhile at LACA, vice chair Stephen Forster explained the campaigns the association is running to have a voice in the debate on childhood obesity.
“Children don’t get fat from eating school meals,” said Forster. Therefore, LACA is immediately calling for an evaluation of Universal Infant Free School Meals, an extension of it to Key Stage 2, maintenance of the School Food Plan, mandatory Healthy School Standards and school food compliance across all schools.
School meals is not to blame for childhood obesity, far from it. But by educating children in the 20% of eating occasions to make healthy choices and automatically choose healthy options without even realising they’re doing it, it might just nudge their behaviour beyond the school gates and onto the high street and at home. The EDUcatering Forum speakers showed that nudge can work for good, and perhaps we can show the rest of the out of home sector our silver bullet.
The EDUcatering Exhibition
As well as a packed schedule of speakers, the EDUcatering Forum hosted an exhibition dedicated to the school catering sector. With thanks to
Aimia Foods (Shmoo Thickshakes)
AJC Retail Solutions
The EDUcatering Cookery School
Taking to the demo stage at this year’s EDUcatering Forum was Park Community School, which won the Secondary School Caterer of the Year at the EDUcatering Excellence Awards in October. Zipping across the M25 from the SCOTY regional finals in St Albans which had taken place that morning, head chef Steven Cross served salmon teriyaki to the audience, alongside his sous chef, apprentice chef and two school food ambassadors.
While they diligently assembled the dishes of mango and chilli glass noodle salad with teriyaki glazed salmon and a Thai-style dressing (all at £1.27 per portion), head teacher Christopher Anders explained more about the importance of food at Park Community School.
The school is in an area of high deprivation yet has managed to instil a great food culture. It has a smallholding of pigs, which the children nurture and follow the process to slaughter and the pork is used in the school menu.
Anders explained that in 2013 there was just one member of staff who ate in the dining room. On retendering he soon discovered that a chef was what he was after, especially if he was to have catering on hand year-round. Not only does Steven and his team – a sous chef, chef de partie and two apprentices – provide meals every day of the school holidays for families on low incomes, but they can be found serving moules marinaire for staff on inset days and even taking pupils into the kitchen to give them a real working experience and highlight a career in catering.
Now, over 500 pupils of the 900 on roll take up a school meal and income has grown from £460 a day to £665. The best day on record was serving up the school’s very own Park Porkies, totalling £1,310 at lunchtime.