Over 250 delegates broke into spontaneous applause at the British Nutrition Foundation’s 50th anniversary conference in London, during a presentation by Headteacher, Nathan Atkinson, about the reality and impact of ‘holiday hunger’ in schoolchildren in Leeds and across the UK. The conference, ‘Talking about the next generation: Nutrition in school aged children’, included a full programme of academic presentations, and was staged to discuss the importance of good nutrition and physical activity in the health and wellbeing of children, and the influence it may have on their academic development and behaviour.
Talking about his experiences of the last three years, heading up Richmond Hill Primary School in Leeds, Atkinson explained that it was his belief that “all behaviour is a form of communication” which had led to his understanding of the impact of hunger on children’s wellbeing and attainment.
Atkinson said: “I believe that children who are eligible for free school meals, should be eligible 52 weeks of the year and not just during term time. So, we built a café in the school, where children can eat, socialise and learn about food, and we employ members of the community to work in the café, serving the children and their families all year round.”
Atkinson’s commitment to helping the poorer members of his school community led him to discover the “vast amounts of entirely edible waste food that are created each day”, and this was the beginning of his Fuel for Schools programme. The scheme, which started with a ‘market stall’ at the school gates where families could buy ‘waste’ produce through a “pay-as-you-feel honesty box”, now provides food to 55 schools across Leeds and saves 250 tonnes of food from landfill every month. His vision is to “empower the next generation to feed the world”.
The conference also heard from Professor Ashley Adamson, Professor of Public Health Nutrition, at the University of Newcastle, who explained that “8 million children go to school on most days; that’s 8 million children we can influence on most days. They spend 35 hours out of 168 hours each week in school; 20 percent of their week, representing a huge opportunity for their teachers and peers to have a major influence” on their eating habits and physical activity levels.
Adamson went on to reference the introduction of Free School Meals under local authorities in 1906, and the recognition then of the impact of poor childhood nutrition, under the mantra “feed the stomach to feed the mind”.
Dr Graham Moore, Deputy Director of the Centre for DECIPHer and Senior Lecturer, Social Science and Health, Cardiff University, confirmed that “children who do worst are those from poorer backgrounds. These children are more likely to eat a poor breakfast, such as a packet of crisps or a bar of chocolate, on the way to school.” Dr Moore echoed Nathan Atkinsons’s concerns about poor nutrition outside of school term time saying: “Holidays mean there’s a big gap in provision; families need to find money to feed children when they’re not in school. For too many children, the hot meal they get at school during term time is the only hot meal they get in a day.”
Roy Ballam, Managing Director and Head of Education at the BNF, said: “We must not forget the vital role of schools in helping to ensure children are adequately nourished. This applies to all children, whatever their family circumstances, and it is crucial that, as well as schools helping to ensure children eat nutritious meals, teachers are equipped to lay the foundations for children to make good dietary and lifestyle choices now and as adults. But most primary teachers have received virtually no formal training in food, nutrition and physical activity, and there is an urgent need to support these teachers during their training and when they are in the classroom.
“Our new professional development programme, free to all primary school teachers in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, is designed to do just this, in line with the curriculum demands, as well as government food teaching guidelines in schools, and will equip teachers to be able to implement engaging food lessons and healthy school initiatives, for the benefit of all their children.”