Guest blog: Insight from the School Food Standards Pilot with Blackpool Council

Guest blog: Insight from the School Food Standards Pilot with Blackpool Council

To mark International School Meals Day (14th March), we hear from Blackpool Council’s Healthy Lifestyles Nutritionist Cheryl Morrison, to find out more about the School Food Standards Compliance Pilot, including key observations and recommendations for improvement. 

In September 2022, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) launched a School Food Standards (SFS) Compliance Pilot across 18 local authorities. The project was designed to test if food safety officers could carry out checks to identify potential non-compliance of School Food Standards (SFS) during the school’s routine food hygiene inspection, and to feedback findings to the FSA.

With myself in post as Blackpool Council’s Healthy Lifestyles Nutritionist, I accompanied the food safety officer to offer nutritional insight. The inspections were steered with the use of an ‘aide memoire’ provided by the FSA, allowing us to check if menus met the School Food Standards. We were also able to assess food production and service, offer advice on healthy changes that could be made and to raise areas of concern with the school.

There were several menu red flags regarding non-compliance in both primary and secondary schools. Oily fish, which should appear at least once every three weeks, was not offered on 25% of menus. After speaking with staff, it was clear attempts to serve oily fish, usually a salmon fillet, where unsuccessful and resulted in food waste. Several schools also offered too many products cooked in fat, more meat or poultry products than are permitted and there was an overreliance of ultra-processed foods (UPFs). We found ready-made sauces, frozen potato pellets, reformed chicken breast, sausages, chicken nuggets, and frozen desserts, all containing ingredients that would not be added should food be prepared from scratch.

For vegetarian and vegan pupils, a portion of non-dairy protein should be served on three or more days each week. The vegetarian and vegan options were usually a derivative of Quorn, notably nuggets, burgers, sausage rolls, mince and meatballs. Although processed meat products can only be served once per week for primary and twice per week for secondary, there no clear guidelines around the number of processed vegetarian products that should be served each week. It was generally assumed that ‘plant-based’ automatically means healthy, even when a product was processed.

Primary Schools

Primary schools were found to be mostly compliant though geographical area appeared to influence some food choices. Catering teams found it challenging to persuade children on to a more wholesome menu in schools located in the more deprived areas.

Most primary schools provided excellent variety of fruit and vegetables during lunchtime service and fresh drinking water was always available in all schools. In general, bowls of whole fruit, were placed on service counters where children could help themselves, though uptake was much higher where fruit was pre-prepared.

High Schools

Several high schools were found not to be compliant. There was a wide range of less healthy foods available and the dining culture in high schools presents several issues. The high schools provide for a greater number of children than the primary schools. The queues are longer, the time allowed for lunch break is shorter and space can be limited. As a result, ‘grab & go’ culture seems the norm, and the food selection on offer reflects this. Morning break was of particularly concern, non-compliant foods included cooked breakfast, sausage or bacon barm cakes, nachos, pain au chocolate, croissants, pancakes, waffles, pizza, hash browns, and garlic bread. This menu was available daily and there was no limit on amounts a pupil could purchase. Concerns were raised regarding the possibility that pupils would not be hungry at lunch when healthier options are provided, which the staff confirmed was a problem.

High schools were less consistent with their fruit offering, several offered pre-prepared fruit pots, though often not enough. One school, catering for 400 students, prepared approximately 30 mixed fruit pots daily, displayed during morning break, and staff confirmed these pots sold out very quickly. Unfortunately, staff told us no more would be prepared for the remainder of the break or lunch service. Pupils told us they would like more fruit pots and other healthier options.

A healthy diet in early childhood is fundamental to support growth, development and reduce the risk of overweight and obesity and other food-related diseases. The School Food Standards ensure children are receiving the optimum nutrition throughout the school day,(5) however, our findings suggest there are disparities in standards of food served in schools even when guidelines are in place. Whilst catering providers do comply with SFS in the main, there seems to be an element of box ticking resulting in poorer quality products. There should be clarity within the SFS about healthier food options and the detrimental effects of ultra-processed foods, in order to improve dietary intake and children’s eating habits.

Recommendations

In response to the results of the SFS pilot, the following recommendations are suggested:

  • School Food Standards for wholegrains should include a minimum of 25% wholegrain rice mix, white bread should be changed to 50/50 offered daily to increase fibre intake.
  • Reductions in the use of ultra-processed products, increasing home cooked dishes from fresh ingredients
  • Utilising healthier sources of plant-based proteins such as beans and lentils, instead of processed meat alternatives
  • Lobby government to increase school meal budgets and introduce universal free school lunches

As part of Blackpool Council’s Healthy Weight Strategy, Public Health seek to build on these findings to reduce health inequalities and improve health outcomes within schools. There are a number of actions in-progress to support our children and young people to grow and be a healthy weight while cultivating healthier school communities.

  • Bite Back 2030 has been introduced into one of our high schools to give children a voice and create discussion about positive action around good nutrition.
  • We are working to engage schools with Food Active’s Pledge for a Healthy and Active Future.
  • We endeavour to ensure SFS are being met and continue to improve the standard of school meals by encouraging schools to gain the council’s Healthier Choices Award.

 


Author Bio

Cheryl Morrison is the Healthy Lifestyles Nutritionist for Blackpool Council’s Public Health Department (ANutr). Cheryl began her career in the catering and hospitality industry, developing roles as a chef, pastry chef, restaurant owner/manager, chef lecturer at Blackpool and the Fylde College and a private tutor.  Cheryl holds BSc in Physical Activity, Nutrition and Health and an MSc in Human Nutrition. Cheryl’s role within Public Health allows her to combine both her love of good food and good health by delivering Blackpool Council’s Healthier Choices Award and promoting the use of fresh, healthy ingredients in the community.

Image: © 2023. Provided by Impact on Urban Health.

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