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Chartwells investigates what school food do children want

26th Mar 2024 - 04:00
Amid much concern at persistent rates of obesity among young people, new research suggests that children care about eating healthily and want to learn more about cooking and nutrition. Olivia Pratt, head of nutrition and sustainability at Chartwells offers her analysis.

With food inflation a continual challenge and childhood poverty and obesity on the rise, it is vital that children are given a grounding in cooking and nutrition so that they can feed themselves – and do so healthily and with pleasure – for a lifetime.

The statistics paint a stark picture. Recent research led by NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre and the University of Southampton, analysed statistics from the National Child Measurement Data, looking at BMI data on children in their first year of school and their last year of primary education.

The findings are alarming; obesity went up from 10% to 14% in children aged 4-5 years during the pandemic – a rise of 45%. Over the same period overweight and obesity rates in schoolchildren aged 10-11 years went up from 35% to 41%.

One of the key factors driving up obesity rates has been the unprecedented levels of food inflation, making access to good quality, nutritious food more challenging to households that are facing food insecurity, forcing them to turn to unhealthy, higher calorie alternatives.

Against this backdrop, it’s more important than ever that children not only receive a hot nutritious meal at lunch when they are at school, but also information about nutrition, food, and cooking that equips them with a vital life skill.

For our new report ‘Fuelling Young Minds’ we spoke to thousands of school-age children – 2,054 to be precise – to understand their views on nutrition, cooking, food waste and sustainability.

The overwhelming majority (82%) told us that they want to eat a healthy and balanced diet. Further to that, children also want to be involved in the preparation and cooking of meals, with 67% telling us that they want to help cook meals at home.

However, this apparent enthusiasm tails off as children go through the year groups and into secondary school. 64% of state primary schoolchildren say they want to help cook meals at home but this falls to 54% during secondary school.

It’s a similar story in the independent sector but with a fall from 78% at primary age to 72% from Key Stage 3 and beyond.

The implication is clear, the desire to learn and take part in food education is evident from a young age but it begins to wane right around the time when it actually becomes of most practical use. There must therefore be greater emphasis placed on engaging children and delivering information that can set them up for a life of healthy eating.

The report also tells us that while fruit is readily available at school, only 42% of primary-age pupils told us they are eating five portions of fruit and vegetables per day. More worryingly, only 22% of secondary school pupils said they consume the recommended number of fruit and vegetables a day.

These statistics indicate how important it is to engage children while they are young, but also to continue engaging pupils throughout their education.

The power of education to tackle these challenges cannot be understated. We have seen the benefits first hand through our Beyond the Chartwells Kitchen programme, which provides educational workshops on sustainability, cooking and food as well as nutrition and health.

Every year our team delivers educational workshops to schoolchildren of all ages across the country – reaching over 100,000 pupils last year alone.

The key ingredient to these sessions is fun. You must grab the attention of any audience to effectively deliver a message, but this becomes exponentially more important when you’re working with children.

Putting fun into food workshops can be done in a number of ways.

At Torridon Primary School in Lewisham, London, we partnered with Full Time Meals to run a takeover day that hosted a cook off between Tom Kerridge and the school’s chef Raheem Morgan. It’s a day the pupils will never forget (nor Raheem, who was voted top chef on the day). Having a celebrity chef visit a school is a powerful tool, but it’s not feasible to scale across the country.

Forged from the desire to reach more pupils with engaging content is our new digital Spotlight Session series. The premise was to create stimulating and exciting lessons, created with the support of teachers, for teachers, that provided clear curriculum links, while keeping children captivated.

Our first Spotlight Session was an expert-led adventure looking at bees and the role they play in our food system. We worked with restaurateur and children’s TV presenter Allegra McEvedy, along with a TV producer, to create an engaging sensory video with age-appropriate supporting activities that link back to the curriculum.

Feedback has been really positive so far and we have reached 2,000 young people across 47 schools. We are continuing to see interest in the Spotlight Session, receiving a total of 373 video views and 2,053 impressions – and counting. It has been inspiring to see young people engaged and enthused about issues that are not only vital to their own well-being but that of the planet also.

At Chartwells we take great pride in what we have achieved so far, but we know that on its own it just isn’t enough. There must be a greater push on food education being a staple of the national curriculum.

Food education remains a popular GCSE option where available, with more than 50,000 taking it in 2022, that’s significantly more than those taking music, German and media studies.

If you’ll pardon the pun, the appetite for the subject is very much there. However, after GSCE there is nowhere left for students to go, ever since Food Tech was dropped as an A-Level option back in 2017.

We believe it should be reinstated to give pupils a pathway for food education throughout their time at school. Not only will this give them the resources and knowledge to fuel healthy and sustainable food choices, but it also opens up a plethora of employment opportunities.

The desire to learn is there, it is down to us as food professionals along with the government and educators to provide a platform that will set the next generation up for life.

To download the full Fuelling Young Minds report visit:

Written by
Edward Waddell