5 tips for putting food at the heart of your school culture

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Date published 03 April 2018

When considering what you want your school culture to look like, strong vision and mission are vital.

But for leaders working in challenging contexts, a holistic approach to culture can make be the difference between a pupil learning or not.

Hunger is a barrier to learning, and it is a school’s responsibility to find a sustainable solution to any barriers children encounter. A high percentage of children attend school each day without breakfast. Some haven’t even had a drink of water.

Many factors contribute to children going to school hungry, but in my role previously as a headteacher and now as an education and health consultant, I find poverty and unconscious neglect to be the two most common. This is particularly worrying as an empty stomach affects concentration, energy levels, attentiveness and emotional wellbeing.

Prolonged hunger results in children working below age-related expectations. Traditional models of interventions, designed to support children ‘catch up’ and ‘close the gap’, are ineffective if the targeted children continue to arrive at school every day with empty stomachs.

There are so many aspects that build a school culture and while food is only a small one, it can have a huge impact on other aspects of school culture – such as ensuring great outcomes and supporting wellbeing.

By changing one small aspect of your school culture, you can have knock-on effect on everything else, but to make sure it’s embedded rather than tokenistic, here are my five tips on building a school culture around food.

1. Teach it right

Schools can easily take the responsibility of educating their pupils about food.

But make sure pupils have access to high quality teaching and resources to ensure access to high quality teaching and resources and that the information they receive empowers them to make informed choices regarding the foods they eat.

Too often people are told ‘what to eat’. This can have negative outcomes, whereas providing the children with information allows them to make informed choices that can result in more positive eating habits.

It is essential that staff have good subject knowledge about healthy eating, and taking time to upskill staff in this area may ultimately help improve their health and wellbeing.

2. Consider the stigma

The introduction of universal free school meals in early years and key stage 1 has played an important role in removing the stigma previously has been associated with free school meals.

When making any additional food provision available in a school it is important to consider the stigma and social negativity that might be associated with such a programme. It might be the school’s intention to support vulnerable families who live in food poverty, however, it is essential to find ways to do this without drawing unwanted attention to these families.

One solution to this is to ensure everyone has access to the food. In my experience, when we made the focus about the environment rather than human poverty and food insecurity people were much more comfortable getting free food.


3. Make it fun and relevant

Food can be used to unlock learning in a variety of ways, from simple maths to more ambitious projects based on social enterprise. Authentic learning opportunities will provide pupils with exciting and enriching experiences that will result in positive academic outcomes.

Pop-up restaurants, food stalls, food growing projects and even art-based projects have all proven to be successful in engaging children in learning. These ideas can easily be made primary or secondary appropriate.

In my experience, when authentic learning is planned effectively, it increases attendance and brings a more positive attitude to learning. From this, measurable academic outcomes will follow.

4. Link it to the greater good

There are many environmental issues linked to food production, transportation, and even food waste. Often people are motivated to make changes in their lives for a greater purpose than themselves, so if pupils are aware that the decisions they make around the food they eat can have a negative impact on the environment, they might be more inclined to make a change.

It takes over 11,000 litres of water to produce 1 kilogram of chocolate, and in my experience, linking this information to droughts and lack of water is a better way of getting people to cut down the amount of chocolate they eat!

When planning a food-based curriculum it is worth taking time to consider food in a global context, the Fuel for School education resource has achieved this by partnering with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

5. Address holiday hunger

Children who are eligible for free school meals don’t suddenly stop being hungry during the holidays.

Holiday hunger is an issue faced by many children and their families. Schools often close their buildings during the holiday period leaving children and their families without the support and guidance of term time.

Schools could consider signposting vulnerable families to places where food can be accessed during the holidays or even open the school on specific days and times to allow children and their families access to meals, food and support.

This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

nathan atkinson
Nathan Atkinson
Director and Lead Consultant, Hone Consultants

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