Guest blog: Solving School Food – A Practical and Dynamic Approach

Guest blog: Solving School Food – A Practical and Dynamic Approach

In this guest blog, we hear from Dr Kelly Rose, Public Health Advanced Practitioner at Durham County Council, about the recently published ‘Doing school food!’ toolkit, and the importance of a collaborative, whole school approach to creating a healthier school food environment. 

I’ve spent the last twelve years working in schools and studying how we can make meaningful change. We know there’s a problem, and my work has shown that there are simple, doable steps we can take to fix it.

The work uncovered answers to why I was able to support successful implement of a whole school approach, and how using ideas from systems thinking and working together as a community can help sustained change and cultivate healthy food citizenship.

‘Taking a whole school food approach has the potential to significantly improve a young person’s food choice, therefore impacting on the nutrient intake of adolescents in the UK.’

Mostly, we see attention on the school menu, with efforts to match up to school food standards. But that’s just a small part of the picture when it comes to developing healthy relationships with food and building long-lasting good food habits. And let’s face it, what we’ve been doing isn’t cutting it!

You know the saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’? Well, it’s true when it comes to changing our food culture too. Everyone in the school community has a role to play. The key to making a school-wide food program work is making sure everyone knows why it’s important and what they can do to help.

I haven’t met anyone yet who doesn’t want the best for the children in their care. They want to fix the problem, but inertia can result from a lack of knowledge around food choice, and school level solutions. Once they know why it matters and what they can do, I’ve seen people step up and act.

Communication is key. We need clear, simple messages shared in different ways all around the school – in classes, assemblies, food rooms, and dining areas. It’s about having the leaders on board and valuing everyone in the school – staff, students, and parents – as key players in making things better.

My most recent publication ‘Doing school food!’: a practical toolkit for adopting a whole school food approach (Perspectives in PH 2023) provides insights that can support reshaping school food policies not just in the North East of England, but potentially across the UK. The comprehensive exploration of attitudes and practices around school food provision from varied demographic settings presents a clear narrative: a structured and collaborative approach is vital.

The toolkit, ‘Doing School Food’, emerges from the study as a practical guide to schools aiming to revamp their food provision systems. The six-phase process it suggests encapsulates a holistic approach—from securing leadership support to constant monitoring and reflection on the actions taken.

It emphasises the importance of creating a shared vision, understanding the existing assets and challenges, and developing an action plan that resonates with the school’s unique context.

The toolkit encourages a whole-school engagement, urging the involvement of students, staff, and the wider community in this transformative journey. Involving young people at each stage and by fostering a culture of healthy eating and educating the school community on the broader impacts of food choices, schools can significantly contribute to nurturing well-informed and health-conscious individuals.

The study also outlines the necessity of a supportive macro-level policy environment. Consistent national policies, local support structures, and an engaged school community are the trinity for fostering a conducive environment for the successful implementation of school food policies.

The essence of this extensive research resonates with a broader public health ethos—creating supportive environments that promote good health practices is a shared responsibility. And as the toolkit suggests, it requires a concerted effort from all stakeholders involved.

In conclusion, the ‘Doing School Food’ toolkit, conceived from a thorough mixed-method study, presents a promising avenue for schools to navigate the often-tumultuous waters of school food provision. It emphasizes a collaborative, inclusive, and structured approach to effecting meaningful change in the school food environment. While the toolkit awaits further testing and validation, it stands as a robust framework that schools across the UK might find valuable in their pursuit of fostering a healthier school food culture. The ripple effects of such initiatives could significantly contribute to improving the dietary habits of adolescents, thereby playing a crucial part in the larger public health narrative.

Acknowledgements: We extend our gratitude to the schools, students, and the community who participated in this study, making it a rich source of practical insights.

Dr Kelly Rose (RNutr) is a Public Health Advanced Practitioner at Durham County Council. Over the past decade, Kelly’s work has focused on creating healthier environments to enable healthier choices, particularly within the school environment. PhD: Understanding the factors which influence healthy school food provision and the young person’s food choice.

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