The missing ingredients in school food policy

While food education has improved, nutritionists say that critical thinking skills and cooking experience are lacking. What needs to be done?

Most young people know that they need to eat fresh fruit and vegetables and that processed and sugary foods aren’t good for them. They’ve been told this for decades, and in a more structured form since the introduction of the social, personal and health education (SPHE) curriculum in primary and secondary schools more than a decade ago. And still, during this time, childhood obesity levels rose in parallel with a decline in cooking skills and a confusing and often conflicting array of health claims about foods. Food education in schools has never been needed more.

There are numerous initiatives, but their reach and effectiveness varies. At primary level, food education happens through SPHE and includes a range of programmes (see panel). One of these, Bord Bia’s Food Dudes programme, which encourages children to try fruit and vegetables, is popular and successful, and now has a very wide reach. The primary curriculum also ensures that children are taught about regular exercise and making wise food choices for a healthy and balanced diet.

At secondary level, however, there are gaps in food education. Frances Clarke, a home economics and biology teacher in St Peter's community school in Passage West, Co Cork, questions whether schools have made significant strides in developing healthy-eating policies.

“Only 55 per cent of schools that responded to the Department of Education’s 2012 LifeSkills survey had a formal healthy-eating policy in place. It should be closer to 100 per cent. The results of the 2012 survey, compared with a similar survey conducted in 2009, also show little progress has been made in areas such as healthy lunch promotion or facilities for selling fresh fruit.”

Secondary shortcomings

In secondary schools, food education is primarily covered in home economics, biology, and SPHE, along with some transition year programmes. Of these, home economics has by far the greatest focus on food, nutrition and cooking, and teaches about nutrient requirements from birth to old age; special diets and conditions associated with food such as coeliac disease and diabetes; factors affecting eating habits, including cost, culture, and seasonality; fast food and food labelling; cookery and food presentation; and the digestion and absorption of food.

Clarke argues that home economics should be mandatory, at least for Junior Cycle. “In our school, as well as in many others, students have a taster of home economics and other subjects in first year. The subject is popular here, but for those who don’t go on to take it, they will have had just a few weeks of food education.”

If anything, we are moving away from mandatory food education at secondary level. SPHE is now mandatory only at junior level, which has a short module on healthy eating and exercise that is usually covered in two to four weeks.

As part of the new junior cycle, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment has developed a 100-hour short course in SPHE on "important considerations to inform healthy eating choices" and to "evaluate how diet, exercise, sleep, rest and hygiene contribute to self-confidence, self-esteem and wellbeing."

This course is voluntary; otherwise, schools are obliged to ensure students understand “the importance of food and diet in making healthy lifestyle choices”, but this is undefined and the quality and detail of food education is likely to vary substantially from school to school.

The gender gap

In any case, if the bulk of food education is to be delivered through home economics there is an urgent need to address a gender gap. Of the 12,027 students who sat this subject for the Leaving Cert this year, just 1,356 – 11 per cent – were boys. On top of that, the grades of boys who do take home economics are significantly weaker than girls’, with just under 60 per cent of boys securing an A, B or C grade, compared with almost 80 per cent girls. At higher level, 5.1 per cent of boys fail the subject, compared with just 2.2 per cent of girls.

Nor is every school properly equipped to teach home economics, a resource- intensive subject requiring ovens, sinks and a wide range of equipment and utensils.

Outside of home economics, there’s very little chance for children and young people to take their theoretical food knowledge and apply it to the practical experience of cooking.

Sarah Keogh, a professional dietitian with the Irish Nutrition and Dietetics Institute, recognises that the school curriculum is overloaded, but says cooking skills and critical thinking about nutrition would be a welcome addition.

“An integrated knowledge of nutrition and cooking is hugely important,” she says. “You can, for instance, teach people that beans and lentils are cheap and nutritious, but it’s no good simply telling people to eat more of them: they have to know what to do with them.”

Young people can be especially affected by food fads and diets, and it is questionable whether they get the critical thinking skills they need. Lately, some of Keogh’s teenage clients, especially boys looking to bulk up or who may be involved in rugby, are turning to the Paleo diet, which urges them to cut out grains, legumes, dairy, processed foods, potatoes, and non-organic or genetically modified foods. “Calcium is essential in the teenage diet, while cereals are a source of fibre and have other health benefits. But once I sit down and explain some of the science to them, they are keen to listen. There is a great appetite for knowledge.”

Critical thinking

Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan is director of human health and nutrition with Safefood, an all-Ireland body that promotes awareness and knowledge of food safety and nutrition issues. She says there is room to help develop critical thinking regarding health and food so citizens can make informed choices. "People can get overly hung up on these headline-grabbing stories rather than focusing on the basics: that wholegrains and fruit and vegetables are good for health."

Safefood is in tentative discussions with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs about developing increased health and media literacy among young people to enable them to recognise the difference between solid evidence and unproven claims about food and nutrition. Meanwhile, the Department of Education says it is working with the Department of Health and the HSE to encourage more schools into the health-promoting schools initiative. The Department of Education is also expected to send guidance to all schools before the end of 2014 about overall student health and wellbeing, including a focus on healthy eating.

As a general rule, members of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute, or clinical nutritionists, are reliable. “We do need to be somewhat discriminating about who we listen to in the media when it comes to food advice,” says Foley-Nolan. “There is an element of ‘buyer beware’, and parents can be a little vulnerable to unproven claims if issues arise during their child’s life. They worry that they may have done something wrong or that they should cut something out of the child’s diet. But if there is an issue, make sure to consult a professional, whether a GP or a dietitian.”


The majority of material about food safety and nutrition is produced by Safefood, and is widely used in primary and secondary schools to support and supplement the curriculum.

Safefood resources

  • CleanHands: This programme focuses on hand-washing, and includes song and rhyme for junior and senior infants. For third to sixth class, there's a drama activity pack called Hands of Doom.
  • Tastebuds: An interactive teaching resource for eight-10-year-olds about the origins of the food we eat, how to have a balanced diet, and the importance of healthy eating and exercise. Delivered as part of the Social, Personal and Health Education curriculum across eight 30-40-minute sessions.
  • Lunchbox leaflet: Last year, Safefood distributed more than 100,000 leaflets to more than 1,100 primary schools, with advice for parents on healthy food for children's lunchboxes and a weekly lunchbox planner.
  • Eatright: A programme targeted at early school leavers that emphasises the fundamentals of healthy eating and how to decipher food labels.
  • Safefood for Life: A natural successor to the Clean Hands campaign, with a focus on food safety and hygiene. Students who complete an online exam get a certificate allowing them to work in the food industry, including, for example, part-time or weekend work in a local deli.
  • Fuel Your Body: This leaflet, developed in partnership with the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute (the professional body for accredited dietitians and clinical nutritionists in Ireland), provides practical information to sporty students on healthy eating and how to incorporate food into regular training routines.
  • How They Measure Up: A resource providing students with information on nutrients, food additives and the food pyramid, as well as a better understanding of food labels, to help them to make informed and healthy choices about food. This is one of the few resources that helps develop critical thinking in relation to health literacy, encouraging students to look at what is – and what is not – stated on the labels, and how foods are marketed or promoted. More than 550 secondary schools have used the resource.
  • Food Dudes: Encourages children to eat more fruit and vegetables at home and at school.
  • Incredible Edibles: An award-winning project from Agri-Aware that provides primary-school children with the resources to grow their own vegetable gardens. It also includes lessons on food origins, the importance of fruit and vegetables (including potatoes) for a healthy diet, and how to prepare and cook them.
  • The Good Practice Guide for School Food Initiatives: A guide for schools to help develop their food policy, including how to set up a school food initiative, how to carry out a needs assessment and how to connect food to physical education, environmental awareness and other parts of the curriculum.

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