The Broken Plate is a landmark annual report published by The Food Foundation, which examines the state of the UK food system and how it is impacting our lives, our health and the planet. The 2022 version of the report updates the statistics to reflect the current situation, and finds that “the way our food system has evolved over time has made unhealthy and environmentally unsustainable foods the norm, causing unprecedented levels of obesity and diet-related disease, and making food production and consumption major drivers of climate change”. Throughout the report, facts are discussed which makes it clear there is an unacceptable link between financial deprivation and reduced access to healthy, nutritious food. So how can schools help to counteract these effects by helping schoolchildren to access healthy meals?
The Broken Plate assesses metrics that indicate the food environment in the UK, split into the three key factors which drive dietary choices: affordability, availability, and appeal.
The Broken Plate 2022 examined four metrics in this area: affordability of a healthy diet, cost of healthy food, wages in the food system, and costs of sustainable alternatives.
The report found that the poorest fifth of UK households would need to spend 43% of their disposable income on food to meet the cost of the diet outlined in the Government’s Eatwell Guide, which sets out what types of food and how much people should be eating to have a nutritious diet. This demonstrates that for many, a healthy diet is out of reach, and that the current system perpetuates the cycle of lower income being linked to poorer health.
The disparity between the nutritional value of food that the wealthiest and poorest households can afford in the UK existed before the cost-of-living crisis. But, with factors like Brexit, the war in Ukraine and climate change affecting the availability and prices of food, and other essential costs like household bills and goods like clothes and fuel increasing too, the situation is becoming ever-more urgent. Families are forced to make even more difficult choices, often turning to ‘cheaper calories’ that are less nutritious, increasing their risk of dietary disease and escalating the obesity crisis even further.
Schools can play an important role in mitigating these effects by providing children with a hot, healthy meal. By making changes to improve the efficiency of their school meal provision, schools can also reduce costs, making it easier to combat the rising cost of food.
If cost is a major factor in whether or not people eat healthy and nutritious food, it follows that so is how easily they can access it. The Broken Plate 2022 found that where people live in the UK has a significant impact on whether they have easy access to healthy food, whether it is because they live in a rural area with limited options, or because they live somewhere with a high density of fast food and takeaway shops but limited outlets for fresh food.
One of the metrics considered in The Broken Plate is the quality of food in schools, and the 2022 results indicate significant room for improvement. Mandatory school food nutritional standards are in place across all four UK nations, but monitoring of compliance is not required, so transparent data on which schools are compliant and which are not isn’t available. In the absence of a Government-mandated accreditation, schools sometimes volunteer for schemes like The Soil Association’s ‘Food For Life Served Here’ – but only 25% of state schools in England are FFLSH-accredited, rising to 47% in Scotland. This increase can be largely attributed to the fact that some independent monitoring of compliance with mandatory school food nutritional standards does exist in Scotland.
The Broken Plate considers advertising spend as a key factor in why unhealthy food choices are more appealing than healthy ones. The startling findings include the fact that 32% of food and soft drink advertising spend goes towards less healthy foods, compared to just 1% for fruit and vegetables. The report also finds that people from lower socio-economic groups are 50% more likely to be exposed to ads for high fat, salt and/or sugar (HFSS) foods than those from higher socio-economic groups, highlighting again the extent to which the food system disproportionately affects poorer families.
Clearly, schools cannot bear the burden of reversing the effects of this damaging messaging on their own, but there is an opportunity to help balance the picture. Our 2022 School Meals Report highlighted that 25% of the parents surveyed would like to see more promotion of healthy eating from their child’s school, and 18% want to see more education about why healthy eating is fun. Furthermore, 45% of parents said that nutritional value is important to them when deciding if a school meal is high quality, suggesting that actively communicating to parents the efforts school are making to provide healthy meals will not only help to bring healthy eating front of mind, but could increase school meal uptake, too.
The Broken Plate closes by outlining the worrying outcomes of the factors described. It describes a significant risk to children’s health: this year’s data shows “a very sharp spike in obesity levels (an increase of nearly 50% in one year) following the lockdowns and school closures”, with twice as many children in the most deprived fifth of the population compared to the least deprived fifth.
It concludes that the lack of physical activity, food insecurity and mental health effects of the pandemic have resulted in this dramatic increase, with 14.4% of children in England and 15.5% in Scotland now having obesity in their first year of school, on average.
The report goes on to describe the shocking long-term impact of these factors and how they are intrinsically linked to deprivation. Healthy life expectancy in the most deprived tenth of the population is 20 years less for women and 18 years less for men than in the least deprived tenth, and if current trends continue then, amongst children born this year, 1 in 4 will suffer overweight or obesity by the time they start school, rising to 3 in 4 by age 65.
How Meal Manager can help in schools
ParentPay’s cashless and paperless meal management system is an all-in-one solution designed to maximise the efficiency of your school meal provision, helping you to keep costs down and provide nutritious school meals every day of the week.
Meal Manager gives you access to more than 150 in-depth reports, shedding light on hidden insights about your meal provision and helping you to identify what works well, and where those essential improvements can be made.
The user-friendly functionality lets you create recipes and menus and analyse the nutritional value of each item, making it easy to assess your offering against the Government standard and test out how recipe changes would affect the overall nutrition. This feature also lets you analyse your cost per meal and how changing a recipe would affect its price, as well as reporting on your most popular meal choices and stock consumption, giving you all the information you need to make cost savings and improve the affordability of a nutritious school meal for your parents.
You can also create pupil-specific, allergy-safe menus which communicate allergen information and limit the choices of at-risk pupils. This feature not only keeps children safe, but also removes the possibility that they will be served a meal they cannot eat and food will be wasted.
Reducing waste is a key money-saving consideration, but also an important factor in proving the sustainability credentials of your school meal service. Meal Manager lets students pre-order their school meals, allowing caterers to order stock according to demand and limiting the need to keep ingredients in stock in case of unexpected circumstances. Meal pre-ordering also gives teachers the opportunity to explain the options and encourage healthy choices in a fun, age-appropriate way. Seamless pairing with your MIS system makes the pre-ordering process quick and efficient, saving time during registration and giving school cooks instant access to attendance information and meal orders by 9am.