Teaching food sustainability in schools can lead to long-term benefits for all

Tess Warnes BSc RD, company dietitian at allmanhall, explores the considerations around encouraging and supporting sustainable eating in schools

The impact that can be achieved as a result of set standards to ensure public procurement of food meets key health goals is well recognised by government and public health professionals. Now there is enhanced pressure from sustainability and nutrition leaders for these standards to also include the impact on the environment and the planet.

Part Two of the National Food Strategy, with Henry Dimbleby at the helm, may well have a greater focus on both sustainability and health. It will include teaching children where their food comes from, and the impact the food supply chain has on the environment. Eating behaviours are proven to be very hard to change. But if the approach manages to fuel the passion and imagination of young people it may also help to create healthier eating habits for the longer term.

It will be made public in 2021 and follows Part One which championed the provision of access to free school meals, including holiday clubs, without setting clear and elevated standards for settings.

Schools currently lack a great deal by way of direction from government when it comes to sustainability

Schools currently lack a great deal by way of direction from government when it comes to sustainability. There are no regulations around meeting any specific sustainability requirements, in the UK, and the very few school food standards mention sustainability.

However, the awareness of sustainability in education settings has, over the last few years, significantly increased. Many realise their ability to play a role in making a difference. And support exists for schools interested in doing so.

There are voluntary schemes around food sustainability accreditations for schools. For example, The Soil Association ‘Food for Life Served Here Award’ certifies criteria such as the use of sustainable fish and of seasonal or local produce, and gives recognition to meals cooked from scratch.

What roles can caterers and dietitians play and what developments are on the horizon?

  • Educating children about healthy and sustainable eating, including where their food comes from. This can help create healthier eating habits for life, as well as dispelling myths about what constitutes sustainable eating.
  • Menu planning to design a menu that is more sustainable and agile, that meets nutritional requirements whilst also appealing to the students. From the language to the layout, menu planning can make sustainable and plant-based food choices more exciting. Sometimes the simplest things can be the most impactful – i.e. putting the most sustainable options first on the menu (usually meat would be top).
  • Taste is a key element, as is taste perception. A dietitian can facilitate the provision of samples, to encourage exposure to different foods and therefore develop greater levels and range of ‘acceptability’.
  • Food waste can be managed by considering ways the food is stored and prepared and serve. Dietitians and catering teams can work together to explore minimising waste and encouraging regular feedback from students about the popularity of dishes. We come back to education here, as onboarding students onto any waste reduction initiatives implemented by the school can have a big impact.
  • Sustainable group creation, led by students is a great way to get feedback, understand what issues matter to students and to involve them in the solution.
  • Sustainable food policy, written to make sure the whole school is part of the approach. It can extend as far as to be included in lesson plans.
  • Meat free days and educating children about how to reduce meat consumption is important, with red and processed meat having the single greatest environmental impact of any food (global meat consumption has quadrupled since 1965). Meat free days can be done in exciting and innovative ways, to be popular with students. There can be concerns around protein intakes and iron, associated with this, but a dietitian can advise. Again, this comes back to menu planning.


Dietitians and school catering teams can play key roles in promoting food sustainability, to the benefit of both the environment and the health of children, and in doing so will help promote sustainable habits for the future.

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