By Linda Cregan, CEO at the Children’s Food Trust.
This year’s theme for the fifth International School Meals Day is about food culture and traditions. I immediately thought of Sam.
Sam is the little boy at the heart of our newest campaign which highlights how the food habits children develop can shape health for life. We follow Sam through seven decades of his life as he eats a ‘normal diet’.
Like many other children in our culture, Sam’s diet is seen as normal and includes a daily bag of crisps and the expectation of a sweet pudding after every meal. By time he reaches secondary school Sam’s diet is affecting him. He’s overweight and most days consuming more than twice the amount of sugar recommended for his age. He sometimes feels tired in class during the afternoon, finding it hard to concentrate on his learning. How many children like Sam are sat in classrooms around the world today? How many children are not reaching their full potential because of the food they’re eating?
‘Culture’ is defined as the ideas and social behaviour of a particular group of people or society. And ‘tradition’ as something that is ‘handed down.’ By 62, Sam from our story is on treatment for high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes and he’s been diagnosed with bowel cancer. He’s determined that his own grandchildren won’t make the same mistakes as him, that he won’t ‘hand down’ his unhealthy habits.
Today nearly a third of children aged 2 to 15 are overweight or obese, and younger generations are becoming obese at earlier ages and staying obese for longer. Obesity is a complex problem with many drivers, including our behaviour, environment, genetics and culture.
During the school years, we learn many of the habits we will take with us through life. We look to our peers and our teachers to help form our ideas and behaviours – our likes and dislikes. Schools, and the communities they create, have more contact with children during their first two decades in life than any other public institution. This is why it’s so vital that schools adopt a culture where healthy lifestyles are promoted, explored and practiced by all.
And they do – school’s across the UK are doing a fantastic job, providing food that is appetising and meets the School Food Standards, with welcoming, vibrant dining halls, and opportunities for children to learn about nutrition and gain vital cookery skills through the curriculum and beyond.
But it’s crucial that we continue to build upon this good work. A key phrase in the government’s childhood obesity plan is that ‘many school canteens are unrecognisable from those 20-30 years ago.’ Many, but by no means all. Despite the success of the School Food Plan, schools continue to need ongoing support, access to finance and time to improve the whole experience of food for children in school, and create an environment that enables healthy habits.
Schools cannot do this alone. Which is why we and other organisations like us must continue to lobby the government and champion the right to nutritious food for all children. Our culture cannot become one where obesity is the norm in classrooms across the country. We need to make the tradition of school food one that we can be proud of – creating healthier adults of the future and less Sams.