Friday, July 12, 2013

England's new School Food Plan arrives

After a relatively short year of work, the "healthy" fast food restauranteurs behind the LEON chain in England, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, have released their government sponsored School Food Plan.  You can have a look at the basics in this video they produced:

In general, it's a surprisingly progressive result.  I say "surprisingly" because it's not the conservative backtracking that I think a lot of people initially feared.  You can read it for yourself at  Here are some basic points:

  • They want heads of schools rather than local education authorities (the school districts in US jargon) to be responsible for the meals service.
  • The government has agreed to create a "specialist organization" to help schools do this. 
  • Perhaps most surprisingly, they have recommended that universal free meals be given to all primary students.  The government has not agreed to this ("yet," they say).
  • A simpler set of nutrition standards (only in draft form at the moment) will be made compulsory for all schools, including academies.  (This has been a point of contention, for the Secretary for Education Michael Gove had originally exempted these charter school-like schools from the nutritional standards that had been so painstakingly crafted since Jamie Oliver-inspired reforms.)  Importantly, they are recommending a return to food-based rather than nutrient-based standards, meaning that you count portions of a food type (meat, vegetables, fruit, etc.) instead of averaging meals that have enough vitamin A, iron, and so on. 
  • "Breakfast Clubs" are to be set up in disadvantaged schools.
  • The target will be getting school meal take-up to 70% in 5 years, as a way of making the program solvent and improving its quality.  They want to give packed lunches a bad name instead.
  • Cooking will be a required subject for kids up to age 14.  This was announced several months ago.
  • Ofsted inspections (basically, government evaluations of a school) will include the culture and behavior in the dining hall.
  • A raft of new public relations campaigns and informational sources will be produced to improve the image of school food and to help school heads learn more about how to run their programs.
While these are mostly sensible and, as I said, even progressive outcomes, there is still much to be concerned about here.  Perhaps most troubling, the move to put heads in charge of the meals service continues a disturbing trend in the conservative push toward atomization of schools.  It can be seen in the push to make teachers negotiate contracts school-by-school, too.  If you want to make progressive reform impossible, this governance technique seems to say, just make the playing field diffuse; instead of installing reform nationally all at once, now school food reform has to happen at more than 22,000 schools one-by-one.  Moreover, school heads have a great deal on their plates already (so to speak); will they have the interest, time, energy, and training to do it justice?  Or will you get heads who only care about what is profitable?  Or, perhaps one who is radically libertarian and thinks kids should have free choice to eat what they like?

And, though nutritional standards will be mandatory (if, they make clear, it turns out they are simple enough to follow), they are rewriting the standards AGAIN, reinventing the wheel as it were on years of effort that has already taken place.  And the standards they have in draft form seem like a bit of a backslide.  Deep-fried foods twice a week.  Confections available during lunch.  Red meat "at least" twice a week.  One need only look at Marion Nestle's groundbreaking book Food Politics to understand the careful wording of these draft standards as avoiding "eat less" messages.

It is also heartening to see movement toward universally free meals.  Janet Poppendieck's book Free for All presents a fantastic argument for why this is the right idea for America's system, and I think it applies well to England, too.  BUT, this is the only recommendation they made to which the government didn't agree.  It's a victory that they made the argument publicly, though.  Now the conservatives at least have to defend why they won't do it.

My biggest impression—and I'll write more about this in the book I'm currently working on—is that this is exactly the kind of political cover that Michael Gove and the conservatives were hoping for.  They are basically reinventing the infrastructure they destroyed. Take, for example, the second bullet above.  They are going to create a "specialist organization" to help schools learn how to reform food.  They already had that in the School Foods Trust, which they defunded.  The Trust already had developed nutrition standards and conducted significant research.  All of that was wiped away in the post-election sweeping out of "QANGOs."  Now, though, the government are going to simply reinstall basically the same thing, and they get to act as if they invented it all. 

Hopefully, at least this will reinvigorate discussions of school food and make some positive difference.  As a progressive victory for better food, I say "We'll take it."  As a political spectacle, though, I find this a troubling sign of conservative governance techniques to come, and it is imperative that progressives develop responses.