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Nutrition in Schools

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Jane Davidson, Minister for Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills
I was delighted to launch Appetite for Life at the Food and Fitness Conference, held at the Millennium Centre on 29 June 2006.  This report, produced by the Food in Schools Working Group, sets out the outcome of their review of school meals and their proposals on how we continue to drive forward our whole school approach to improving food and nutrition in schools in Wales.

This groundbreaking report proposes not only the introduction of more stringent standards for school lunches but also setting new minimum standards for all food and drink available throughout the school day.   These are long overdue and I warmly welcome them.

There is little doubt that all of us recognise that a healthy balanced diet is important not only to our children and young people’s health but also to their ability to perform at school.  Increasing evidence suggests that pupils who eat healthy balanced meals and who have access to drinking water display better concentration, improved attention, are less likely to be hyperactive, and are calmer and more alert in class.  This can only be good news for children and us as a country in the future.

It is vital, therefore, that we put in place in our schools in Wales, food which is of the highest nutritional value alongside an ethos which reinforces the need to engage in a healthy lifestyle.

This engagement must start at the earliest possible point.  The importance of the early years to a child’s personal and social development and to their attitudes and approach to learning in later life cannot be underestimated.  The stimulation a child receives in these early years can affect their abilities and potential throughout life.  We must give every child a flying start – and we must demonstrate our commitment to support parents to enable this to happen.  The Parenting Action Plan, launched in December 2005, set out what the Welsh Assembly Government will be doing to ensure that parents and carers are better informed and better supported.  We all know that disadvantaged children become disadvantaged adults – we need to break this cycle by ensuring we develop complementary policies and programmes that enable this to happen.   Research indicates that the most effective interventions are those where all dimensions relevant to the child are addressed.  We need to provide an environment in which children and young people will be able to acquire and develop essential skills which will equip them for life – including practical cookery skills, an understanding of nutrition, healthy eating and food safety.  

Appetite for Life should not be seen in isolation – and that is why the conference on the 29 June was used as an opportunity to launch this report jointly with the Food and Fitness Implementation Plan.

One particularly exciting development linked to Food and Fitness implementation plan is provision of a Cooking Bus for Wales. The Focus on Food Cooking Bus, a cookery classroom on wheels, will focus its visits on primary schools in Communities First areas which are part of the Welsh Network of Healthy School Schemes, and which are already working on healthy eating and physical activity initiatives. One session at every venue will be used to help parents of young children to develop their cooking skills; and another will deliver training to teachers to enable them to deliver cooking skills into their classrooms.

A cornerstone of the Welsh Assembly Governments whole school approach to health and nutrition is our primary school free breakfast initiative.  Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and provides children with a good start.  Over a third of our primary schools have already signed up to participate in the initiative – and this number continues to increase as more and more schools hear of the health and educational benefits of participating.   We need to build on this and other initiatives aimed at improving health and nutrition by encouraging healthier eating in our schools.  A great deal of work has, and is continuing to be done to develop a whole school approach to food and nutrition and Appetite for Life acknowledges this.  

We were, for instance, at the forefront in the UK for providing guidance on fruit tuck shops, healthy vending and water in schools.

However, where good practice does exist we need to ensure that we have effective systems and standards in place for identifying, sharing and replicating such practice.  There is a need to collaborate, locally, regionally and nationally to support the implementation of this ambitious and exciting agenda.  

Following the Jamie Oliver campaign last year there was some negative press surrounding school meals which led to a general perception by the public that much of the food used in schools was processed rather than freshly prepared.   We know that this is far from being the case.  Many local authorities and schools in Wales are already offering healthier school food and adopting effective approaches to encourage pupils to make healthier choices.  This highlights the importance of developing an effective marketing and communications strategy as part of any concerted move to further improve the quality and nutritional standards of school meals.  

With increasing concerns over growing levels of obesity and how this impacts on our health we have a responsibility to ensure that the food provided for our children and young people during the school day is healthy and nutritious.  There is no doubt that diet in childhood plays an essential part in growth and development, current and future well being, educational performance and avoidance of chronic disease throughout life.  

Food provided at school although important only forms part of our children and young people’s diet.  We need to send out clear and consistent messages about what constitutes a healthy diet not just at school but also at home and in the wider community.  We should never underestimate the importance of influences outside the school – especially peer and home pressures - and the need for the Welsh Assembly Government to address this wider issue.

We need to understand and recognise that local authorities and schools will all be at different stages in introducing and taking forward the agenda proposed in Appetite for Life and that primary and secondary schools will face different challenges.

Appetite for Life recognises that the physical environment – both the kitchen and the canteen – is an important consideration when adopting a whole school approach.  Many local authorities are already taking steps to improve their school meals service and are investing in training programmes for their Catering staff.  Having the necessary skills and equipment available to promote and support the introduction of the new food and nutritional standards proposed in this report will be critical to its successful implementation.   To support the implementation of the new standards the Working Group proposes the Welsh Assembly Government should purchase software which can be accessed on an all Wales basis to analyse meals.  This is an excellent proposal and one that I will be strongly supporting.

Improving the quality and the nutritional value of the food on offer in schools is not enough on its own.  We have to work with children and young people to ensure they actually consume these healthier options.  

In deprived areas where the majority of meals served are free, these set the quality for the whole service.  There are still a significant number of children not taking up their free school meal entitlement and I welcome the Working Groups proposals around measures, such as marketing campaigns and cashless systems to try and achieve maximum take-up.

If we are to successfully introduce changes to the provision of food in our schools we must involve all our stakeholders in the process.  Like adults, children and young people respond best to change when they are consulted and their views taken into account.  I am pleased that the Working Group recognises that school councils will have a key role to play in taking forward this agenda.

It is also important that we get public sector food procurement right and that key stakeholders work together to make sure this happens.   The WLGA have pulled together a small group of local authorities to explore best practice in school meal provision.  To support this work the WLGA also commissioned Professor Kevin Morgan and Dr. Adrian Morley to produce the report Sustainable Procurement: from good intentions to good practice.  Effective collaboration with key stakeholders is vital.  We need to encourage creative and innovative thinking in the supply of food to schools.  Food for Thought case studies highlights examples of such approaches.  

We need to be clear here - the issue may not be about spending more but about spending better.  There could be efficiency savings to be made through better procurement arrangements and more effective use of existing resources.

Appetite for Life proposes not only what changes should be made to food in our schools but how we then deliver, monitor and evaluate these changes.  

If we are to successfully transform the provision of food in our schools there needs to be a co-ordinated approach between schools, local authorities, caterers, Welsh Assembly Government and health services.   I strongly support the Working Group’s proposal that whilst we, the Welsh Assembly Government,  continue to provide strategic direction that we should work jointly with the Welsh Local Government Association to appoint a coordinator to assist in the practical implementation of Appetite for Life at local level.  Initial discussions have already taken place between my officials and those of the WLGA to discuss how such proposals might be taken forward.

The Welsh Assembly Government is committed to developing evidence based policy and it is essential we have systems in place to enable us to do that.  The Working Group has highlighted the need to establish a national management information system for school food to provide us with consistent and comparable baseline data.   There is also a need to evaluate the information collected locally and nationally to assess the overall impact of the standards.   This is an area that I will be looking closely at to ensure we are achieving real improvements to the provision of food in our schools by delivering a pupil centred service which our children and young people are truly seeing the benefits from.  

Currently legislation only allows standards to be set for school lunches; the Welsh Assembly Government has for instance, no power to ban particular foods.  However the Education & Inspections Bill which is currently being considered by Parliament should, by the Autumn, provide us with all the necessary powers to take forward every proposal in Appetite for Life.  The consultation period for Appetite for Life will end 31 October – which will coincide with new legislation coming on stream.

In terms of the timeframe for introducing the key changes set out in Appetite for Life,  by September 2008, schools would have to meet all of the food standards for school lunches and the proposals for other food and drink – including for example food provided through vending machines.  In addition, the new meal nutrient standards would be introduced from September 2008 followed by a one year implementation period in primary schools, and a two year implementation period in secondary schools.

All food and drink provided in all of our schools – through vending machines, tuck shops, and the canteen service – must be healthy and nutritious.  The Welsh Assembly Government wants the best for our children and young people and that is why it is crucial we continue to work in partnership with all of our stakeholders to develop and deliver a whole school approach to food and nutrition.