Ladies and gentlemen, if I may say so, it really is a huge pleasure to be here this afternoon to present these inaugural “Food for Life Partnership Awards”.
I know from Peter Melchett and Emma Noble, who have worked so tirelessly on this campaign, that they are immensely heartened that so many schools have met the criteria to be award winners in this first year of the awards.
The fact that there is no gold winner this year proves just how tough the standards are and I can only congratulate all the silver and bronze winners – and, particularly, the “School of the Year”.
I know you are all longing to find out which one of you has won this prestigious title, but I hope you will forgive me for prolonging the suspense a little longer because I just wanted to say a few words about precisely why I believe it is so crucial to follow the example you are all setting and to transform the food culture in this country…
Over the last forty years it would appear that we have managed to create a whole generation – the parents of the children you teach – whose understanding of where food comes from and how it is produced is severely limited.
And it is causing real harm. The over-reliance on packaged, processed food is not just damaging our own health, but damaging our bio-diversity, our soil through agro-chemicals and our water-table through pesticides.
And, linked to all this, our family farmers have seen ever-diminishing returns on their produce, which means that rural communities have suffered from the loss of local distinctiveness, traditions and culture.
So we have much to mend, but the prize if we succeed is enormous. And what is so encouraging is that there are signs of real optimism. Things are beginning to change, not least as a result of the heroic efforts of a really remarkable man, Jamie Oliver. But at the heart of the progress which has been made is the work of the “Food for Life Partnership”.
I am proud to say that two organizations of which I am patron – the Soil Association and Garden Organic – are members, together with the Focus on Food Campaign and the Health Education Trust.
I was reflecting over the weekend that it was only in 2004 – just four years ago, long before this had become a public issue – that I spoke to teachers, school cooks and farmers at a Soil Association “Food for Life” event in Skipton.
Everyone agreed that radical change was needed, but there was a real sense that it was probably too difficult because even if caterers could be persuaded to put fresher, healthier food on the menu, pupils would not eat it.
However, there were two people at that meeting who knew it was possible because they had done it and it had worked. One was Steve Hatcher, the Deputy Head of St Aiden’s, a secondary school in Harrogate, who had brought in a restaurant chef with the result that the numbers of pupils eating school lunch increased massively, there was a significant improvement in behaviour and concentration and far fewer pupils were going out into the town at lunchtime. In other words, the food was better on the inside than the outside!
The second pioneer at that meeting was the most extraordinary dinner lady, Jeanette Orrey, who had revolutionized the school meals at her primary school, St Peter’s in Nottinghamshire. I am so pleased to see her here today since I can only say she is owed the greatest possible debt of gratitude because she inspired the creation of Food for Life which has led the revolution in school food.
But, of course, what everyone here knows is that it isn’t enough just to offer healthy food. The Food for Life Partnership has shown that the take-up of school meals rises – on average by 16 per cent across the award-winning schools that are here today – when school meal changes are supported by practical food education like learning to cook, growing food and visiting farms to learn where food actually comes from.
So it is crucial that we teach children about the link between the soil, the countryside and food production; we must allow them to discover the joys of planting a seed in the earth, to see it grow, to harvest it themselves and then to eat what they have grown. Above all, they need to learn to cook it. This is the only way to educate children about healthy eating – about slow food, not fast food.
How else can we possibly expect children to care about the food they eat unless they understand how it is grown? If they don’t know that milk comes from a cow and carrots from the soil, how can they make judgements on what is good or bad for them? That is why I was so pleased that my own Duchy Originals food company developed a programme with Garden Organic to encourage children to grow their own food. Any school can do it. As St John the Baptist school in Hackney – represented here today – has shown, even inner city schools on very restricted sites can find somewhere for pupils to grow food – all they need to do is tear up some of that endless, depressing black tarmac!
And if young people can begin to learn the skill and care which goes into producing food then perhaps we can begin to tackle the appalling waste of food in this country – £10 billion worth every year; that is over £600 a year for every household with children. It is nothing short of criminal and obscene, but is a symptom of our “throwaway society”. Some of it, at least, you might have thought, could be used to feed to pigs instead of importing hideously expensive grain and some to be anaerobically digested to provide a clean source of power and heat.
But I think we need to ask ourselves a more searching question, not least about the cause of some of the anti-social behaviour of some young people. Many of you here today would attest to the clear link between the quality of food that young people eat and their behaviour. I was interested to hear one of the headteachers here today say “The change in children’s behaviour when we changed the food from processed to freshly prepared and organic was incredible! They’re much happier and more attentive in class now.”
But I wonder if there is something deeper here? Do you think, perhaps, that the disconnection from the land, from the natural world and from understanding the rhythms of Nature, is part of the cause too? There was some research published at the beginning of the Year of Food and Farming, of which I was patron, by Dr Aric Sigman which showed that children who have contact with Nature score higher on tests of concentration and self-discipline; that exposure to natural environments improves children’s cognitive development and that schools with outdoor education programmes have better academic results and classroom behaviour.
This, I can only say, is one of the reasons I have for so long been such a committed supporter of school farms. For those that find academic studies more of a struggle, they learn practical skills and they also tend to respond extremely positively to working with farm animals. The great thing is that every child can be a success at something and this gives an enormous sense of self-confidence and self-worth. Incidentally, I don’t know how many of you know that a few years ago The Royal College of Physicians did a report on allergies. I am sure you know that there is an epidemic of allergies and the Report found three causes: a lack of exposure to animals, chemicals in products and hermetically sealed buildings.
Now we are beginning to make progress with healthy eating in schools, we need to tackle – yes – you have guessed it! – we need to tackle how we feed patients in our hospitals. As we are what we eat and as we know that the sort of food we eat makes a difference to our health even when we are not ill, it would seem sensible that the food hospital patients are given helps, rather than risks hindering, the process of recovery. So we need to encourage them to source locally, seasonally and, where possible, organically.
There are some shining examples already in existence, not least at the Royal Brompton Hospital here in London, which is sourcing its food from a local farmers’ hub thus bringing benefit to the patients through better quality food, to the farmers through a reliable and local market, and to the environment through lower food miles and less waste.
In the best tradition of meddling, it has occurred to me that if it could be organized – and I cannot see why it couldn’t – the ideal would be to create local hubs, not just of hospitals, but schools too which would buy local food from hubs of local farmers. This would massively reduce transport costs and food miles, while contributing greatly to local economies and to patient and pupil health. In other words, it would be possible to create a genuinely virtuous circle.
I know that there are caterers we are celebrating here today who are beginning to do just this. “Local Food Links” is serving a “Food for Life” Gold menu to twenty-four schools in Dorset, and “Shire Services” has successfully launched a “Food for Life” Silver menu with seasonal, local and organic food to 130 primary schools in Shropshire. This has to be the way forward and I do hope that others will be inspired to follow the lead you are giving. Incidentally, the Home Farm at Highgrove has been supplying a local school in Gloucestershire with potatoes and carrots for the last four years.
Ladies and gentlemen, please be under no illusions about the importance of the mission in which you are engaged. It is about rescuing today’s generation of over-industrialized children; about instilling in them a life-long appreciation of food and the way it is produced and reconnecting them with Nature so that they may have a better understanding of why it is so precious to the health and well-being of each and every one of us. It is about transforming attitudes to food and farming and, in particular, the fortunes of Britain’s family farmers. My warmest congratulations to all the winners.