The importance of proper school meals

Henry Dimbleby tells Camilla Akers-Douglas why school meals are crucial for children to get the best education.

Henry Dimbleby believes that good school food can change children’s lives. The trouble is that ‘good’ isn’t a word that’s normally associated with the subject. As co-author of the School Food Plan (, he’s one of the masterminds behind the school-food revolution that former education Secretary Michael Gove ushered in. Mr Dimbleby is also the co-founder of the healthy fast-food chain Leon, a classically trained chef, a former management consultant and the son of David Dimbleby and Josceline Dimbleby, the food writer.

When he opens the door of his house in Dalston, east London, an affable face covered in salt-and-pepper stubble greets me. I navigate a toy-strewn kitchen while he buys tickets for his son’s school raffle over the phone. As the father of three young children, Mr Dimbleby is familiar with the battles parents fight to give their children a healthy diet and, like every parent, he has firsthand experience of just how irresistible well-marketed, playfully packaged processed food is.

‘Every day, for breakfast, Johnny has porridge and George has oats and fruit with yoghurt,’ he says. ‘Yet when we go on holiday with other people and there are Cheerios and Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, they can’t get enough of them.’

Mr Dimbleby is now seated in his back garden eating a crunchy vegetable salad, discussing the health of the nation. At the moment, almost 20% of British children are obese by the time they leave primary school at 11 years old—it’s a serious health crisis we can’t afford to ignore.

In writing the School Food Plan, Mr Dimbleby and his co-author John Vincent had two goals: to understand the school-food system (they visited more than 60 schools in the process and heard from hundreds more) and to align as many food bodies as possible behind a common goal. That goal is good food in every school and therefore more contented children who perform better in the educational environment. After all, there is good evidence that suggests well-nourished children perform better academically.

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‘School food is one lever you can pull as a society,’ explains mr Dimbleby. ‘The state not only has a duty to feed children well, but it can set standards and norms that will live on through their lives.’

Crucially, Mr Gove agreed to implement all 17 of the plan’s recommendations. Croydon and Lambeth have been selected as two flagship boroughs in London to highlight the transformative impact on health and academic performance when school food is improved. Michelle Obama is even flying in to lend her support to the campaign. It’s quite a coup for Mr Dimbleby, whose painstaking vision lies at the heart of the School Food Plan. ‘We want to show that, if everyone pulls together—head teachers, school cooks, teachers, governors and parents— you can swing the dial by quite a lot.’

Among the recommendations being implemented are free school meals for all Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 pupils in State schools, funding for school breakfast clubs in the poorest areas and making cooking lessons part of the national curriculum for children up to the age of 14. ‘If every child is able to cook a range of savoury dishes, you’ll find society will change quite a lot,’ says Dimbleby. ‘I’ve met a lot of parents who struggle to cook well because they don’t have the skills, but they want to get them.’

It’s ironic that, for the all the good Jamie Oliver did when he highlighted the horrors of the Turkey Twizzler in 2005, the take-up of school food went down to an all-time low of 37% because ‘people thought school lunches were terrible’.

Since Mr Oliver’s intervention, there has been a clear, measurable improvement and a reduction in junk food. However, Mr Dimbleby estimates that an average of only 43% of children eat school food—the rest bring in a packed lunch. ‘A half-empty school canteen is like a half-empty restaurant. There are a lot of fixed costs. The more people who give their children school lunches in any given school, the better the quality it will be able to serve.’

Only 1% of packed lunches meets the nutritional standards set for school lunches, so all but the most dedicated parents would be well advised to cease their frantic, early-morning efforts. ‘I’m a chef and it’s a nightmare trying to make five nutritious packed lunches a week,’ confesses Mr Dimbleby. His own children eat school food. ‘If I had a school, I’d ban packed lunches, but I’d make sure the food was really good first, that allergies were catered for and I was looking after the poorer people who didn’t get free meals.’

He continues: ‘The best schools we went to weren’t good because Government has passed a law. They were good because they had head teachers and school cooks who had done amazing things and really wanted to change the food culture in the school.’

He singles out Reach Academy in Feltham, west London, for its pioneering, familial approach. The children eat together with the teachers, the head teacher brings the chef into the dining room to talk about the day’s lunch and then the children have two minutes of quiet eating before they’re allowed to start talking. Packed lunches are not allowed. These are simple ideas, but are surprisingly complex to deliver.

Mr Dimbleby wants schools to cook food that is both nutritious and delicious, for the dining hall to be a welcoming place, for children to eat with their friends and for the school to interest children in cooking and growing fruit and vegetables.

Bland, boring, beige food must come off the menu, as must crisps, confectionary and fizzy drinks. Indeed, from January 2015, new government rules have allowed schools to offer only two portions of battered, fried or pastry-coated food a week and water will be encouraged, with sugary drinks and fruit juice limited to 150ml servings. And there’s no place for a school that makes its cooks use the back door while the rest of the school enters by the main entrance. ‘There really are some places where the catering staff are still viewed as completely separate from the rest of the school,’ says Mr Dimbleby.

This is a campaign that aims to celebrate excellence. Via the School Food Plan website, participants will be encouraged to post films about their most ingenious ideas. ‘We want to shine a bright light on all of the amazing things that are going well and help people to realise that other people have done it and you too can do it.’

The ultimate goal is 70% of children eating delicious school food cooked by happy, well-trained catering staff. ‘School food has to be fun. That’s the key—it can’t be the worthy option.’

This is the dream of the Big Society working within schools. Its scale and detail is impressive. ‘It’s about generating energy within the system—constant improvement, revolution, moving the bad to be average, the average to good, the good to great and, in the end, you get everyone doing great things,’ states Mr Dimbleby. ‘It will be a long haul, but I hope the momentum we’ve created will be self-sustaining.’ If it is, it will change the lives of a generation of children.