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Food Education v School Meals


Food Education and School Meals: are they on separate tables?

Nutrition & Food Science, No. 80, Jan/Feb 1983

Alan F Harrison
Director of the Edinburgh Hotel School
Telford College at Crewe Toll


The Home Economics teacher’s attitude to school meals may well be influenced by her own childhood experiences and she may not welcome the thought of combining her teaching with those in the Educational Catering Service. Teachers may not think that such a combination is possible. Alan Harrison claims that it is time educational catering offered more towards food education, and time, too, that such help was accepted.

The interest within this study of the school meal is based upon the wide acceptance of the value of its contribution to the nutritional progress of this country in the last few decades and the probably disputable assertion that such a contribution has come to an end with the advent of ‘fast’ and ‘junk’ foods, the indiscriminate consumer and the diminishing motivation of Local Education Authorities to provide a meal within certain nutritional cost parameters. The main statement of the analysis is that Educational Catering has missed a valuable opportunity to play a significant part in improving the health of the school pupil by providing the appropriate food. Almost equal in importance as a statement is that Educational Catering must become fully involved in the school food education programme.

Such ranking of statements suits the treatment well in the opening stages of the study as we have to understand why it missed the opportunity to be involved. But as far as the future is concerned the statements must be re-ranked. Lost opportunities are of less importance for the future than determining ways in which the school meal staff can be integrated into the team of people in the school interested in improving the dietary choices of its pupils and, as a consequence, improving their health.

Nutrition à la carte

This article will also explore the notion that Educational Catering is not pulling its weight in improving the level of dietary health in this country. Considerable attention is being paid to the dietary considerations within health education and ‘food education’ will be taken to mean the special food-related activities within education.

Considering the role which Educational Catering played twenty or thirty years ago in improving the nation’s health it has not maintained its momentum.

What is ‘food education’?

While health education is taken as read it is appropriate to elaborate upon the term food education. This is taken to mean:

(a) The food dimensions of Home Economics teaching in schools and related science teaching
(b) The food dimensions of courses in Domestic Science and Home Economics
(c) Courses in nutrition
(d) Courses in hotel and catering
(e) WEA
[Workers' Education Association]adult education, evening institute and community education courses and activities bearing such titles as Eating for Health.

While an accusing finger might be pointed at hotel and catering education, it has a reasonable proportion of nutrition teaching going on within it and it is beginning to look at health education.* The finger, however, does point firmly at the school meal. On either side of lunch time the class is observed covering the ideals of diet and correct food choice but on the next available meal occasion in the school, pupils are confronted with “…chips and sausage rolls, chips and hamburgers, chips and anything, plus baked beans, tinned spaghetti, crisps, sweet biscuits, jelly, instant whip and orange and lemon squash”. (1)

Now it can be argued that the pupils should be educated to make better food choices (given that realistic choice can be offered in the future) and that those in Educational Catering are merely responding to demand. The important question is not so much ‘Should they?’ but ‘Is it not time that the school meal was integrated within the overall food education within the school?’ There is an important dimension of the school condoning what occurs in the school eating area and the pupils obviously come to accept its offering as being meet and right.

For example, the school arranges classes in nutrition, menu planning and cookery techniques are taught and yet the teachers may not see that the meal offered within the school is ‘by the school, for the school’ in the minds of its pupils. If the meal is based upon fried foods to satisfy pupil demand it can be interpreted as being the accepted thing to do when they come to make their parental food decisions relating to the meals of their own children. Here we have an activity which is centred upon food, occupies a significant proportion of the school day, is legitimated by the school and yet is not wisely accepted as part of food education. It is time that it was.

The school tuckshop is also a topic ripe for ‘food education’ discussion. Any objectives within the school concerning food education may be undermined by both the school meal if it is not appropriate and the activities of the tuckshop. In both cases the school is probably seen as legitimating what occurs and, in the tuckshop’s case, adding a lot of support if any profits are for worthy causes. Obviously, to amend policies overnight so that all that is available to the pupil is raw carrots, will not achieve anything, which is why it is necessary to incorporate the tuckshop into the overall food and health education programme and ensure that everyone in the school is aware that something is actually happening, it is happening across the board and that all who should be involved are involved including those providing the same meal.

Opportunity knocked but no reply

There are two dimensions missed within ‘opportunities’ for Educational Catering to play a full part in the efforts made by the school as a unit to improve the diet of its pupils. The first is the clear opportunity of providing food which is wholesome (the reasons for pupils not eating wholesome food will not be debated here; rather, it is more appropriate to consider way of encouraging them to do so).

The second dimension is far less of an opportunity which is why it was put in quotes earlier. We are discussing the notion that the school meal must be integrated into the food education programme. Perhaps the best opportunity which might be permitted is for those in the kitchen to be given menus to work to but this does not go far enough. If the school meal is to be integrated further into the food education programme then those in charge must be part of the team which draws up and implements the programme. Note that this is not limited to the teaching aspect:

‘We welcome the moves that are being made to bring the school catering service into closer working relationship with Home Economics Departments in schools. We commend curricular links of this nature as a promising way of creating an awareness of healthy eating habits as an enjoyable and satisfying aspect of the art of living’. This is taken from the Department of Education and Science’s Report, Nutrition in Schools. (2)

Those with firm evidence to the achievement of such objectives may like to respond. Perhaps it is limited to the type of activity described by PT Smith (3) if those in the school catering service were to join ‘Brains Trusts’ it may be a start!

The Schools Council/Health Education Council has (4) provided a Health Education Project 13-18 (SCHEP) which recommends that the school forms a Health Education Team of teachers. It is suggested here that there is a sub group of this dealing with food education made up as follows: the senior Home Economics teacher, a senior officer in Education Catering, the senior school meals supervisor, a representative of the physical education staff, others interested in the topic from the science staff, representatives from the General Education Department (more education?) and from the Parent Teacher Association.

The limitation which may exist in preventing those in Educational Catering from becoming involved in the food education programme within a school are:

(a) Historical consideration – it is not usual for them to be so involved

which implies…

(b) Organisation considerations – there is no formal mechanism within the school for such a tie up

which sets a constraint…

(c) Professional considerations – teachers are a set of professionals who may not recognise that Educational Catering personel (at senior level) are also professionals

(d) Cultural considerations – teachers and those in Educational Catering do not mix socially

To distinguish between these four dimensions may appear arbitrary although some attempt ought to be made to analyse the situation. It is an intricate, emotive area but we should accept that in any essentially social situation there are perceived superiorities and inferiorities. Even in the Educational Catering situation they are said to prevail. Wright, (1) describes a possible hierarchy whereby school meals cooks are viewed by school meals organisers with ‘drawing room condescension’.

Her main point which is relevant to the discussion of limitations to involving those within Educational Catering in the food education programme is that the school meals organisers ‘are themselves looked down upon by Home Economics teachers’. Only a small number of teachers are prepared to be involved in projects involving school meals. ‘The rest consider catering beneath their interest’.

The Challenge

There is scope for every Home Economics teacher to review her relationships with the schools meals service afresh. ‘There are challenging opportunities for those responsible for school catering and educationists. Measures combining learning activities and good food provision…can be instrumental in the development of good eating habits – not only during school years but for a lifetime’. (5)

The ‘challenging opportunities’ could be identified by the Home Economics teacher on her own or by the select group of teachers and then communicated by memorandum to the school meals organiser. Far better, however, would be to treat the organiser as a professional and identify the opportunities on a collaborative basis.

It is appropriate to seek the co-operation of those involved in devising and preparing the school meal. ‘The school lunch should provide an enjoyable meal and also a laboratory where all pupils learn to practical facts about food and nutrition’. While an appropriate objective [as defined by Turner (6)], it is dubious that it is fulfilled in the modern British school. The meals may be enjoyable in terms of pandering to the liking for chips and sweet foods but there is little evidence to suggest that pupils are provided with a situation where they learn the ‘practical facts’.

Those at the counter are at present in a no-man’s land between the home economists who are endeavouring to teach, amongst other things, wise food choice on the part of their pupils and the school meals organisers who hope to provide meals based on sound nutritional principles. They also realise that unless the popular items are provided there will be no demand which is, of course, a feeble argument.

There is little opportunity for anyone to put across the practical facts if their efforts are not integrated into an overall food programme. ‘…it is known that the nutrition programme most likely to succeed is one directed at children. This must be reinforced by practise in balanced eating and the disappearance of the set school meal represents a lost opportunity for education in terms of actual meals’. (7) It is not part of the overall argument that the set meal is retained.


The nutritional objectives associated with the school meal were clear during the days when minimum requirements had to be met; any social objectives identified may have been fulfilled by the operation of ‘family service’. While it would be interesting to hear if this is still being carried out in a large number of schools it may be useful to explore such objectives.

In the absence of any written objectives it is appropriate to consider what they might be. The social objectives relating to food and in terms of the pupil may include:

(a) To be aware of the function of table manners in regard to the interests of others at the table.
(b) To be aware of the role of food and drink within social interaction.
(c) To be aware of the pressures upon the individual (8) to consume particular products and to be able to evaluate products in their own right.
(d) To be aware of the needs of the individual and the family in respect to the non-nutritive dimensions of food whereby its attractiveness and appeal in the physical sense is enhanced by a stable environment free from anxiety and stress.

What is the need?

Leaving aside the obvious point that those within Educational Catering will muster numerous arguments for the retention of school meal provision, there are inevitably conflicting views. Kipps and Thompson (9) point out that ‘the radical option already aired in some educational circles is the removal of the school meal system altogether’, on the basis of rearranging the hours of the school day so that lunches are timetabled out. Contrastingly, they draw attention to the ‘reports in recent years by leading nutritionists that there are still sections of the population where the school meal constitutes a major role in the nutrition of children’. Within such a contrast we should notice the different bases for the assertions. The first is based on the lack of finance, the second on the lack of nutrients.

It would be enough, considering the theme of this discussion, to discount the economic issues and settle for the nutritional argument. However, officialdom may prefer to put forward the notion that school meals are no longer required as most parents can afford to give the children sufficient money to go elsewhere for their midday food. The Scottish Education Department Report (10) would have us believe that ‘the society to which the pupils belong is steadily growing more affluent and state welfare assistance more liberal’. If this were true and pupils went out to buy their meals what on earth would they eat if they are unable at present to eat wisely at school?

Perhaps the greatly increased numbers of parents out of work since 1975 would argue for the retention of the school meal and, who knows, in years to come they would also demand a nutritionally sound meal for their own children. We should hold as the ultimate objective that older pupils will be able to make their own wise food choices now and, as parents later, look after their own children’s food education rather than delegating it to the school.

If this paper has been abrasive in parts and if Educational Catering has felt the rub there will be those who will make their own reply in due course.
[[[ none did ]]] It is hoped that they will not concentrate only upon the pejorative aspects of what has been said. There will, of course, be many situations where what is being provided in the school lunch time is very acceptable in health and nutritional terms. It would be more beneficial to hear views on the ways in which Educational Catering is being integrated into the school food education programme at present and ideas on developmental work for the future. Whereas the likely title of a response to what has been said is “School meals – we have enough on our plate already” it does not take too much effort to overhaul the thinking and to re-title it ‘Food education – another helping please’!


1. Wright, H., 1981, Swallow it Whole, The New Statesman’s Guide to the Food Industry.

2. Department of Education and Science, 1975, Nutrition in Schools: Report of the working party on nutritional aspects of school meals, HMSO

3. Smith, P.T., 1981, FEAST Progress, Home Economics, 27, 9

4. Schools Council Health Education Council, 1981, Coordinator’s Guide; Health Education 13-18 Project, In process of dissemination.

5. Collins, S.C., 1980, School Catering: the place for change, Postgrad. Med. J, 56, 610-612

6. Turner, C.E., 1952, School Health and Health Education, Henry Kimpton

7. Whitehead, R.G., 1981, Dietary goals, past and present, Nut. And Fd Sc, 69

8. Harrison, A.F., 1982, Gastronomy, New Horizon

9. Kipps, M. and Thompson, J., 1980, The future of the school meals service, Hospitality, June issue

10. Scottish Education Dept., 1975, Catering in School, HMSO, Edinburgh

*The first Health Education and Food Conference took place in Edinburgh last August.
[[1982]] Its purpose was to create a forum for discussion between Home Economics teachers and catering lecturers.

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