New toolbox will help schools across the country implement new national food standards
- Downloadable resource can help schools identify what they are doing well and highlight areas for improvement
- Toolkit created after research project in 20 Sheffield primary schools
- Study found examples of excellent practice, but also areas where small changes could help promote healthy eating
A pioneering toolbox, which can be used to help schools across the country implement new food standards launched this week, has been created by an education researcher at the University of Sheffield.
The School Food Toolbox was developed by Dr Caroline Sarojini Hart, from the University’s School of Education, following a year-long research project studying lunchtime and food practices at schools across Sheffield.
The downloadable resource and a research report, Creating Tools for Practice: Food and the Self-Evaluating School, can be used to help schools review and develop practice in relation to the goals of the national School Food Plan.
The new standards aim to ensure nutritious school meals which support pupils’ health and education and give greater creative freedom to school cooks to adapt to children’s preferences and create dishes to suit their talents.
Dr Hart said: “The new School Food Standards are a welcome addition to supporting good food practices in schools, when used within comprehensive and tailored school-level strategies.”
The researcher’s study of 6,000 primary school pupils from 20 schools in the city revealed many examples of excellent ways in which food practices were embraced as part of a whole school ethos.
Her toolbox aims to help schools identify features of good practice that already exist in their schools and develop short, medium and long-term plans to make conscious small steps towards further improvement. The toolbox also provides schools with questionnaires to evaluate their current practices.
For example, choice plays a key role in the activities and habits of pupils regarding their food practices. Pupils navigate menus and are selective in what they choose, often leading to imbalanced food consumption.
The study found there were many simple strategies that can help and guide pupils’ food choices in a positive way – for example, offering half portions of cake and fruit to reduce the number of food choices which exclude fruit altogether.
During the research, Dr Hart found a midday supervisor in one school stood with her back to the salad trolley, stopping pupils from getting to it. As a result, not one pupil had salad during that sitting.
However, in another school where the salad trolley was positioned in the centre of the room with two members of staff assisting pupils, uptake was much higher.
Dr Hart said: “The positioning of salad trolleys can influence the flow of pupils moving from the main food area and encourage pupils to stop and select items.
“Knowing how to maximise the setting to encourage good food habits is key.”
Research showed the importance of making food look visually appealing and that pupils enjoyed smelling fresh herbs, spices and fruits.
Younger pupils also commented that whole apples were hard to bite with wobbly teeth, which Dr Hart said should be considered when schools are preparing food.
The study revealed school meals were often discarded, but the researcher said the new School Food Standards, which give greater creativity to chefs, could help improve this.
Overall, the research found that there are many things that staff, caterers and parents can do to support children’s food practices in schools and that pupil education is key to supporting good food habits.
The School Food Plan was published in 2013 and over the last year the Government has been working to support schools in developing a whole school approach to food, driven by education, health and economic goals.
It is thought that if pupils eat well they will be better prepared to learn and that developing good food habits early can help to stem the obesity epidemic facing the nation.
Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, authors of the Government commissioned School Food Plan, argue that unless school meal uptake increases significantly, catering businesses will struggle to balance the books when aiming to supply high quality nutritious school meals.
Nationally, apart from in the infant age range, the majority of pupils have either a packed lunch from home, or they buy food off-site at lunchtime, and these meals are exempt from the food standards.
Dr Hart’s research recommends a systematic approach to evaluating and developing food practices in schools, involving the whole school community.
The toolbox and report are available to download for free on the School Food Plan by searching ‘Sheffield’ on http://whatworkswell.schoolfoodplan.com/
Other useful information is available at www.schoolfoodplan.com.
The University of Sheffield
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