Baroness Floella Benjamin has written us another brilliant article drumming home the importance of our children’s food. This is a fascinating read and gets us all thinking about the healthy pathway that all our children should be taking.
Making sure that children are happy, healthy and secure is our most important challenge and as Co-Chair of the All Party Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood, it’s a responsibility that is dearest to my heart. I was delighted to launch our third report, ‘Food in School and the Teaching of Food’, in a House of Lords debate recently, and what I found so encouraging was the enthusiastic welcome for our ideas from parliamentary colleagues in all parties. That’s so good because we achieve most when we all work together and it really does seem as if politicians are at last beginning to understand what every parent knows! If we want to create a civilised and healthy society, we must nurture our children now rather than throwing money at the cost of neglect when those children are adults themselves.
The traditional saying that ‘we are what we eat’ is absolutely true and for children, healthy eating patterns and knowledge about nutrition learned during their schooldays will sustain them and their families for the rest of their lives. After years of sub-standard provision, recent Governments, inspired by pioneers such as Prue Leith and Jamie Oliver have begun to emphasise the importance of delicious and nutritious school food, but as our report emphasises, there is so much more to do. The introduction of a universal free school meal for the infant age-group was a wonderful idea but, as countries such as Sweden and Finland have demonstrated, it is actually cost-effective in economic as well as health terms to make this available to children throughout the duration of their school life. It’s essential, too, that everyone responsible for the preparation and delivery of school food is properly trained; that all schools have well equipped kitchens and that wonderful gardening and vegetable-growing schemes are not dependent upon one or two committed staff members and likely to be abandoned if and when those individuals leave.
Knowledge about nutrition is absolutely crucial and should start from the confirmation of a pregnancy with health visitors, midwives, early year’s educators and teachers working with families in a respectful and non-judgemental way. It’s no good, for example, distressing a child and their parents because the contents of a lunchbox in a school ‘dinner-time’ inspection are found to be unhealthy! Why not help to build the confidence of new parents right from the outset so that when their children attend school they’ll be much more likely to bring a well balanced lunch box or opt for a healthy school meal rather than snacking at the many fast food outlets surrounding school premises?
In the same way, teaching children of all ages the principles of good nutrition can be fun! It doesn’t have to be confined to a study of ‘home economics’ but as pilot schemes in America have shown, nutrition can be very successfully integrated into the study of other subject areas such as maths and science. What is important is that all children can benefit, regardless of the type of school that they attend. The new nutritional standards for food supplied in school are a great step forward – but some schools are still allowed to opt out. Excellent voluntary schemes have also been initiated by organisations like the Independent School Food Plan and The Children’s Food Trust but now is the time to include these in legislation so that children from all parts of the country regardless of their particular circumstances can be included. In the coming months, The All Party Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood will be meeting with Ministers to discuss these recommendations and those in our first two reports. We’ll also be hoping to work with the Government as it plans to devise a new Framework to tackle the epidemic of obesity with all its related health consequences; from type two diabetes to heart disease and some cancers. We know that setting children on a healthy pathway from the outset makes sense and that the food they eat, and the opportunities to play and be active in every respect are crucial. If readers have any ideas we can take to Government, we’d be delighted to listen and learn.
The food that children eat is food for life. Let’s all work together to ensure that those lives are healthy, safe and above all, happy!