Children's health and food

Supporting schools to provide healthy options

30 September 2019
6 min read

Schools play a central role in ensuring children have access to nutritious food throughout the day. Rebecca Sunter, Portfolio Manager for children's health and food, shares how we're working with local schools to ensure healthy food and physical activity become the norm for all children.

Rebecca Sunter
Rebecca Sunter
Programme Director

Through the school’s strand of our children’s health and food programme, we are working to support the take-up of healthy food options and physical activity throughout the school day. This work supports our goal to address the childhood obesity inequality gap, and tackle the high rates we see in lower-income areas.


Why are schools important for improving children’s health?

Primary and secondary schools have a significant impact on children’s health and weight. In the UK, schools often have control over at least one meal a day for the children in their care. In the Lambeth and Southwark, where we work, many schools serve their pupils two meals a day, for example at breakfast or after school clubs.  Schools have a statutory responsibility to provide food which complies with the School Food Standards and deliver physical education to all pupils from age four to 16. 

We believe that the school environment offers an exciting opportunity to ensure all children can have healthy, nutritious meals and opportunities to run and play.

Excess weight in reception and year 6

Working with schools to reduce childhood obesity

Children and staff in local schools will play a critical role in championing changes within their settings, ensuring healthy food and physical activity become the norm.

We have taken a three-step approach to understand how schools can have the most impact on childhood obesity rates locally.

Firstly, we reviewed the current international evidence base with our partner the Behaviour Insights Team. This determined what types of changes in schools are most likely to have an impact on childhood obesity.

We then spent time with local headteachers to discuss the evidence and gather their insights and ideas to inform the development of our schools strand. The heads identified some key opportunities and highlighted the significant resourcing and infrastructure challenges faced in creating healthy school environments.

Finally, we funded a handful of ‘test and learn’ projects including:

Our work to date shows us that:

Many primary and secondary schools aren’t meeting the School Food Standards (SFS) throughout the school day. The SFS are the minimum we expect from schools to serve nutritious meals, but schools aren’t actively supported to meet these requirements. Schools and caterers are not systematically checked for compliance with the SFS. For example, OFSTED inspections don’t currently include inspecting school food provision.  

Not all children are getting the recommended active minutes of physical activity they need a day. To maintain a basic level of health, children and young people aged five to 18 need to do at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. However, schools have told us about the difficulties of meeting the curriculum requirements for PE lessons. The curriculum is packed, and PE isn’t prioritised like the core subjects. Break and lunch times have also been compressed, which means there is less time for children and young people to engage in play and exercise.

It’s vital to have buy-in from school leadership. Strong commitment from the head and senior leadership team is needed to create long-lasting change to food and physical activity provision.


What’s next?

Over the next few years, we intend to scale initiatives in our boroughs and work with where childhood obesity rates are highest.

We will continue to partner with schools, caterers, local council teams and others to support the take-up of healthier food options. Children and staff in local schools will play a critical role in championing changes within their settings, ensuring healthy food and physical activity become the norm.

We will be looking to increase the number of local schools and caterers that comply with School Food Standards throughout the school day. To do this, we believe that it’s important to support the conditions schools need to take action.

Using our growing evidence base, we’d also like to work with policy partners to understand how catering supply chains and accountability mechanisms for schools can support and promote healthy food environments. We will also support a small number of projects which seek to improve the quality and quantity of play and physical activity in local schools.

We’ll be learning and sharing more about what works and doesn’t to create healthy school environments. To keep up to date with our work as our school’s strand develops, please sign up to our newsletter.