Prue Leith: better food plan for schools would improve UK diet

By Rod Addy

- Last updated on GMT

'Good food should be at the heart of a school,' said Leith
'Good food should be at the heart of a school,' said Leith

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Reforming the approach to food in schools would help wean UK consumers off junk food and improve their diets, according to The Great British Bake Off judge Prue Leith.

Leith stressed the point at the Society of Food Hygiene & Technology's (SOFHT's) annual lecture on 18 November. "It's too late to completely reverse the junk food cycle, but we could make a serious start with children."

School was meant to prepare you for all aspects of adult life and cookery should be an essential part of that preparation, she said. "The Government should pay for cookery and food studies just as it pays for maths and science."

The state had to pick up the bill for diet-related ill-health and obesity, so it made sense for it to invest in education to help mitigate the problem, she argued.

Food and nutrition at A-Level

She welcomed the reintroduction of cookery to the secondary school syllabus in 2014 in the form of the GCSE in food preparation and nutrition. However, echoing Henry Dimbleby's National Food Strategy she said food and nutrition needed to be maintained at A-Level to keep it on students' minds when they moved on to work or higher education.

In agreement with Dimbleby, Leith said more funds needed to be allocated to resources to improve the quality of learning and to pay for the raw ingredients for cooking classes. She explained that a minority of schools were devoting proper attention to teaching cookery because few had the facilities to do so. She pressed for more time dedicated to lessons, as too much was being spent in unpacking food children were required to bring in and in clearing up.

She called for more training for teachers of cookery and nutrition 'of which there is a current appalling shortage'. Chefs who were fed up with the stress, pace and long hours in the restaurant sector were a good group to target to recruit school caterers and cookery teachers, Leith suggested.

'Lunch is a lesson'

"In my model school, teachers eat with the children, lunch is a lesson."​ No children would bring snacks to school, ensuring they would be at least 'mildly hungry' before lunch. "Good food should be at the heart of a school."

School visits to farms would also help develop future generations' understanding of the food supply chain and acceptance of the role of meat and vegetables in the diet.

Often the schools with the best approaches were driven by heads who were convinced of the merits of learning about food, she added.

Leith also claimed the National Food Strategy's proposal to tax foods high in fat, salt and sugar was reasonable. However, it would work best only if both sides of the recommendation were adopted, with the cash being used to subsidise access to nutritious food for the poorest in society, she said.

Winners of the SOFHT annual awards were also announced at the lunch.

SOFHT annual award winners 2021

  • Su Werran​, who after 15 years with the organisation has now officially retired as SOFHT operations director, received the Dorothy Cullinane Award​. The honour is given to a person who has made an outstanding contribution to the food industry, with particular emphasis on food safety and/or food hygiene and/or food technology.
  • The Best New Product/Service Award​ was given to NSF Discussion Forum​ - a free forum to help the food industry navigate the challenges of COVID-19 by providing calibrated, proportionate and industry benchmarked information. Cultro Limited and STS were highly commended.
  • Christeyns Food Hygiene​ was named Best Company​. Since the pandemic began, the business ramped up its online presence and was the first in the sector to offer free, monthly webinars collating and reviewing information relating to practical viral control. LRQA and NT Assure were highly commended.
  • Diversey​ was chosen as the Best Training Company​. Its training team was praised for adapting rapidly to ensure delivery of high quality accredited training to customers and food and drink processors either remotely, face-to-face or a blend of the two.
  • The Best Auditor Award​ was given jointly to Paul Macintyre​, aquaculture director - customised assurance at LRQA and Sylvia Anderson​, director of Sylvia A Consultancy.
  • Keith Watkins​, technical specialist, food at ALS Laboratories (UK) Limited won the Best Trainer Award​. He has been delivering food microbiology training for more than 20 years working in food manufacturing and contract lab testing. Derek Thomas of Diversey and Peter Rose of Percipio Training were highly commended.
  • Jordan Wright​, technical services director at NT Assure, claimed the Best Food Technologist Award​. She has worked in raw material manufacturing, retail and hospitality and is currently acting technical manager for a UK restaurant chain, guiding it through Natasha's Law and calorie labelling.

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