Eat Club welcomes the publication of the ‘National Food Strategy– The Plan’ (hereafter referred to as the NFS). The NFS is the second report in a two-part series and sets out 14 recommendations for Government consideration which will be addressed in six months’ time via a White Paper.
The NFS traces the development of the current UK food system from the period following WWII, which was and continues to be driven by technological innovations in crop production, transport, storage and more processed foods in the diet. The NFS demonstrates how these developments have had negative effects on human health, healthcare systems, biodiversity and the climate emergency. Suggested remedies to the current diet and environmental crises include addressing diet-related inequality, breaking the junk food cycle, changes to current agricultural practices on land and health as well as changes in legislation and the food system. In many ways the report is ambitious and, sometimes radical in its recommendations such as the tax on sugar and salt which could raise £3 billion annually and help to fund health-promoting activities.
The NFS highlights the development of the ‘junk food cycle’ where the reinforcement of negative food messages and the lack of skills are part of a ‘reinforcing feedback loop’. For example, one of the food delivery companies has on its App the message ‘why bother to cook’. The focus of Eat Club on food and sourcing helps address the fundamentals of the ‘junk food cycle’ by making young people aware of where their food comes from, who controls the sourcing and production and the importance of consuming minimally processed foods.
Eat Club welcomes the majority of the recommendations, and is particularly interested in the recommendations that relate to food skills and young people, as these are closely connected to Eat Club’s work. Eat Club engages with disadvantaged young people through the art of cooking and the enjoyment of eating together. Our highly trained session leaders coach groups of young people through a programme in the fundamentals of cooking; sharing with them the nutritional knowledge, budgeting and practical skills necessary to develop healthy lifestyle habits in the face of current food and health inequality. We also draw on the social and cultural dimensions of food as a means of enabling underprivileged young people to strive towards independence, competence, and greater confidence. We explore food, cooking, and eating – beyond their utilitarian qualities and rather as complex and potentially empowering communal processes that can help young people gain life skills, combat social isolation, reduce anti-social behaviour and widen their employability prospects.
We see four potential areas where Eat Club is already actively engaging with and pursuing the aims of the NFS;
- The first is by offering an extension of our activities to the Holiday Activities and Food (HAF) programme which we hope will continue to be delivered at times of the year that are often difficult for low-income households, such as Christmas and the summer holidays. These activities are open to children who are entitled to free school meals (FSM) and include activities related to ‘cooking and healthy eating’.Over the summer Eat Club delivered a suite of sessions funded by the HAF programme in four local authorities: Kensington & Chelsea, Camden, Hackney and Islington, enabling young people across London to cook over 500 healthy meals during the summer holidays.
- The second key recommendation relates to food skills in schools. Eat Club endorses the formalisation and integration of food skills in the curricula of both primary and secondary school. While our activities are not focused explicitly on younger children, this recommendation has relevance to Eat Club as well as any organisation promoting cooking in and out of school settings. Since the establishment of the School Food Plan in 2014 (insert link), schools have had a legal requirement to teach cookery and nutrition to all children up to the age of 14. The curriculum states that schools should attempt to “instil a love of cooking in pupils”, while teaching them the kitchen skills necessary “to feed themselves and others affordably and well, now and in later life”. By 14, all pupils should be able to “understand the source, seasonality and characteristics of a broad range of ingredients” and “cook a repertoire of predominantly savoury dishes”. The NFS says that in many schools, this is still not happening “and food education remains a second-class subject.”
- The third recommendation for schools is focused on curricula changes. Eat Club does not yet have a presence in schools to directly address this but its community-based work with young people and their families is already reinforcing and filling gaps that schools sometimes find hard to tackle. For example, by the end of every Eat Club course, every participant can prepare and cook 6 healthy, low-budget meals that cover a wide spectrum of cuisines, nutrition, and cooking methods. Eat Club can also extend and consolidate the sensory and taste approach to food preparation and consumption advocated by the NFS.
- The fourth recommendation that is connected to the objectives of Eat Club relates to formal qualifications and post-16 employability. The NSF reads, ‘the Department of Education (DfE) should conduct a qualification review to ensure that existing and new qualifications such as A Levels in Science and Catering provide an adequate focus on food and nutrition, and a progression route for students after GCSEs.’ This is vital in light of the post-pandemic skills shortage in hospitality and the COVID-19 crisis faced by the hospitality sector. While we agree that the DfE should review the issue of qualifications and apprenticeships this review should not be limited to schools but include community initiatives such as those run by Eat Club. Eat Club’s work with young people in out-of-school settings often provides a critical dimension that the formal school setting cannot and offers a real-world setting. This also aligns well with the recommendations of the January report ‘Skills for Jobs White Paper’ (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/skills-for-jobs-lifelong-learning-for-opportunity-and-growth) and the recommendations for traineeships and
In spite of recent and enduring obstacles that the country continues to face, Eat Club is able to continue its valuable work with young people and build new and exciting partnerships with key organisations. We understand that a good relationship with food and eating is the bedrock of mental and physical wellbeing. This connection – between food, cooking, and eating and mental and physical health, especially amongst young people in England, must be institutionally recognised and prioritised. Further, as the NSF notes, these recommendations, if implemented, would stimulate positive, system-wide ripple effects across the entire food system, including its social and ecological dimensions. We believe that only once the NSF recommendations are accepted by Government and the importance of improving young people’s relationship with food is recognised as a priority, will we receive due recognition for our work which will in turn increase our ability to unlock funding to extend our reach.