"Cooking went back onto the Curriculum in 2013 with the School Food Plan and the sad thing we know that despite Government decree only 26 of schools are actually doing this."
Founder and CEO of School Food Matters, Stephanie Wood is on a mission to ensure that every child enjoys fresh sustainable food at school and understands where their food comes from. Women in the Food Industry co-founder Mecca Ibrahim caught up with Stephanie to discover how she set up the initiative and explore what motivates and inspires her work.
Stephanie Wood founded the initiative as a reaction to bad food at her children's primary school. She said "Our children were born in Sydney and when we came back to London in 2005 we took them to the local primary school and the first thing I heard from the school manager was 'Sorry about the smell but that’s lunch.' There was a level of acceptance that school food was bad and we couldn’t do anything about it. Only 20% of the children were eating school meals and most of that was going in the bin. I just thought I was going to fix up my kids’ school, but it soon became clear that there was an opportunity to do something bigger."
A launch event at Richmond Theatre was fronted by culinary luminaries including Jonathan Dimblebly, Prue Leith, TV gardener, Chris Collins, influential dinner lady Jeanette Orrey and even a video appearance from Jamie Oliver. This led to petition and enough coverage to get the local authority in Richmond on board.
This success spurred Stephanie on for more. She explained "I wanted to work with parents, headteachers and other campaign partners such as The Soil Association and Sustain to get the best possible school food that was good for children and good for the planet. We now work with all the London Boroughs and feed into conversations at the GLA. School Food Matters has just been co-opted onto the London Food Board so we’re having an influence on policy. And the work we did back in 2013 on the School Food Plan with Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent means the impact of our campaign has spread beyond London."
With a strapline of “farm gate to school plate” School Food Matters went on to try to connect famers with schools. "I thought we would get farmers to supply local schools with produce, which sounds like a great a good idea, but is more complex that you might think, especially when you think about the complexity of local authority contracts. So I figured if we can’t get farmers to supply food to schools, let’s get schools out to meet farmers. By getting that link in place, children realise that food starts in the soil and not in the supermarket."
Another campaign sees Stephanie and her team working with chefs to help get kids cooking. When asked what more can be done regarding teaching children how to cook, she said:
"I firmly believe we have to have policy. Cooking went back onto the Curriculum in 2013 with the School Food Plan and the sad thing we know that despite Government decree only 26% of schools are actually doing this. In secondary schools they teach this thing called “Food Technology” (cooking) which is shoe-horned into the Design Technology (DT) curriculum. Many secondary schools have a fully equipped food room but no food teacher. Then conversely, in primary schools, you might have a really enthusiastic teacher who wants to teach children how to cook but no facilities.
But we can’t wait for government. Food education and school food is not politics- proof, so it tends to ebb and flow with each change in government. Yes, policy is important but we have to get schools motivated. I am a firm believer that food education sitting in the DT department is the wrong place for it to be. We need to really prioritise food now to tackle the public health challenge of childhood obesity and we also need to consider the impact of food on climate. We need a standalone subject called Food Education, just like you would have Religious Education or Physical Education. Food Education must be prioritised and valued and there’s enough rich content to engage children from 4-18!
There are definitely practical cooking skills that need to be taught as well as lessons in how to be discerning consumers. Young people need to know how to read labels and understand when they are being marketed to so they can learn how to feed themselves well and choose food that’s going to keep them happy and healthy."
You can read the full interview with Stephanie Wood from School Food Matters on Women In the Food Industry's website.