In September last year cooking skills became a compulsory subject for UK schools. But will this be enough to reverse the nation’s declining health? And more saliently, what can the fresh food industry at all levels do to help?
We live in an age when information on food is just a few clicks or swipes away; yet there are countless teenagers who wouldn’t have a clue how to mash a potato, peel an onion or heaven forbid, dice a carrot.
According to research into cooking abilities by supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, in partnership with the British Nutrition Foundation, school leavers struggle most in the kitchen, with 44% saying they could not make a dish as basic as an omelette.
In response to the growing issue of the UK’s expanding waistlines, the Conservative / Liberal coalition government made cooking a compulsory subject for school pupils aged from five to 14-years old. The changes were brought in last September, but already some schools are reporting difficulties in delivering the lessons due to a lack of knowledge, facilities, and funding.
Natasha Gavin, founder of the not-for-profit organisation I Know Why It’s Yum Mum, works in preschool and primary education running workshops and shows that encourage children to eat vegetables and fruit.
Gavin says that from her observations, many schools are already short of resources, and this has had an impact upon the amount of time teachers have to give cooking lessons.
“A lot of the time the lessons lean towards sweet foods, such as fruit,” she says.
“It is easier to make muffins or flapjacks – some form of dessert. It’s still good that children are learning about and handling food, but I would like to see more of a balance with vegetables.”
Gavin adds that there is an opportunity for suppliers to schools, and for buyers who target children amongst their audience, to help support teachers by providing fun fact sheets about produce, and even adding one unusual or exotic vegetable to an order for teachers to show the children.
“Children are so far removed from the food chain today,” she explains.
“Especially if food is bought online, and delivered when they are in bed. Often it’s pre-prepared or they are not involved in the preparation, and then it just appears in front of them. We need to show them food in its natural state, and make it fun as well as explain why they need to have a healthy diet.”
Not only does Gavin work in schools, she also facilitates one to one sessions with children that have food issues, and is keen to stress that this goes across the class spectrum.
She adds: “We live in a convenience society, and while those on low incomes might be eating processed foods, there are just as many middle class people who are buying ready meals too. It’s just that the quality of ingredients is better.
“Those basic cooking skills are being lost, and it will take time to regain them. Having cooking lessons in school will help, but there needs to be more done by society at large, and in the home too.”
Food blogger, author, and supper club hostess Kirstin Rogers, aka Ms Marmite, agrees that while lessons in school are a good idea, it’s then applying them at home that matters.
“The best cooking in the UK has always been found in the home rather than restaurants,” she says.
“My sister-in-law teaches cooking in schools. It’s encouraging that the government has now made it part of the curriculum. Before you were more likely to learn how to design the packaging of food than make the dish. Everyone should learn to cook, boys and girls, it’s science applied to everyday life.”
Rogers says that unfortunately, a lot of television cooking portrays food as an event rather than a fundamental skill.
“The cookery programmes on TV tend to be very ‘lifestyle’, not too much about cooking and, especially where women are concerned, rather too much about skinny model-like women fluttering over a perfect dish,” she explains.
“I think that encourages the idea cooking isn’t an everyday thing to do. The instructional approach of Delia Smith seems to have been lost.”
The concerns of Gavin and Rogers that practical skills have fallen by the wayside echo the numerous voices of health education campaigners, and chefs and restaurateurs, that say young people are ill equipped to cook for themselves compared to their parents or grandparents.
The Sainsbury’s research, which ranks a respondents cooking age next to their actual age, appears to back these concerns.
According to the results of the survey, adults aged 40 to 50 had a cooking age of 16, which means they can confidently cook to the level required of GCSE students. While school leavers aged 17 to 18 had the cooking abilities of a 12 year old.
In response, the chain launched a national cooking competition as part of its Active Kids programme, but also backed it with curriculum-linked lesson plans and recipe ideas to help support teachers.
Tara Hewitt, head of Active Kids at Sainsbury’s, says it was brilliant to see so many young people getting excited about cooking and eating well.
“Every school presented delicious dishes and showed an impressive range of food knowledge and cooking skills. By working directly with schools, we are helping children develop the skills that will help them enjoy good food and be active throughout their lives.”
While Sainsbury’s has taken a lead among supermarkets in engaging with schools, there are a number of other food industry bodies that are making resources available to teachers.
The Food For Life Partnership is an organisation led by the Soil Association alongside the charities Garden Organic, Focus on Food, Health Education Trust, and the Royal Society for Public Health.
Alongside offering practical support and ideas for delivering cooking lessons, the partnership encourages schools to visit with local producers, farms and markets, and involve parents and communities in the process. It also works with local councils to help deliver projects.
This provides ample opportunities for fresh food businesses to get involved with supporting schools with cooking skills and food education, while also passing on the message of the benefits of fruit and vegetables to future customers.
Bradford’s St James Wholesale Market is a great example of where local traders have engaged with schools through the council setting up visits and tours.
With compulsory cooking lessons still only one term in, it is difficult to gauge whether they will have an impact on eating habits, and the uptake of fresh foods.
Although there is heartening evidence from other initiatives, such as the Jamie Oliver Ministry of Food centres, which offer food and cooking courses to disadvantaged communities.
Last month a study by Leeds University’s School of Food Science and Nutrition showed that the Leeds Ministry of Food centre was “successful in achieving many positive personal, dietary and potentially health impacts for participants”. These included an increase in vegetable intake and a decrease in the amount of weekly “convenience food” eaten.
Hopefully, with support from the fresh food industry, schoolchildren will be enjoying the same benefits as Jamie’s pupils.