School food plan helps waistlines, hinders the planet

How many food miles in a ham sandwich? Kolya

The School Food Plan for England released last week is supposed to be the blueprint that improves lunches in schools across the country. The important role of head teachers, a funding commitment from the government to support schools, and the requirement for all schools and academies to follow these guidelines are real highlights.

While I celebrate this publication, it is also important to look at the risks it poses. The danger of a good plan, largely well received, is that if we have missed something initially there will be very little opportunity to amend it later. So what has been missed this time? In a word, sustainability.

With little mention of the environmental profile of the recommended diet, the report misses one of the most important issues of the 21st century: how to feed a large part of the population while lowering our emissions profile.

Why sustainability is important

The government has recognised greenhouse gas emission reduction as a priority concern and the Climate Change Act 2008 sets a target to cut the total annual emissions by 80% by 2050, with an interim target of a reduction of 34% by 2020, compared to 1990 levels.

UK food production and consumption is responsible for up to 18-30% of the total greenhouse emissions. So reducing the footprint of the food sector is essential to achieve these targets.

The government’s stewardship in providing sustainable healthy food is an important step in changing behaviour in the general population. Government food procurement guidelines such as those for school food and hospital food should be used to demonstrate its commitment to sustainable food.

The authors of the plan state that this is not a set of recommendations to the government, but a plan which proposes “actions”. I cannot see any strong actions there to promote sustainable food or to achieve government emissions in the targets set out.

Most of us, including head teachers, are familiar with the concept of healthy school meals. We could follow food-based or nutrition-based guidelines to provide healthy food. But all of us need extra support and specific guidelines to define sustainable healthy diets. In this plan, the two main proposed actions to assure sustainability are provision of local seasonal food and fish from sustainable sources. This is not adequate to achieve government targets and changes we would like to see in the food sector.

Greenhouse gases and food

Measuring the sustainability of food is a complex process and we might not have information to capture all sides of the issue. Greenhouse gases are the most common indicator and the government’s main national target is to reduce emissions. So using this as an indicator, can this plan succeed in improving the sustainability of food in Britain?

The title of chapter 12 of this plan is “What gets measured gets done”. I couldn’t agree more with this statement, but with no sustainability indicators in the list, lowering emissions may not happen.

The UK is one of the few countries which has already published several reports with emissions profiles of different foods and which has the capacity to quantify this. If we have this information and methods available, we should use them to align the school food plan with the climate change act.

According to the current plan we have to assume provision of local food and sustainable fish would achieve our targets. But previous studies have shown that we will not achieve this target by solely changing the sources of food to seasonal or local farms.

The biggest contributors to food emissions, such as red meat, have large footprints due to their production process. So if we want to achieve emissions targets, we need to change the type and quantities of food we eat, not just their sources.

Developing school meals that achieve both nutritional standards and sustainability targets is complex. Without proper guidelines, it will be nearly impossible. That’s why the food plan represents such a missed opportunity. It may shrink waistlines, but it won’t lower emissions.