School's Out: Meet School Food Matters
Founded in 2007, the charity School Food Matters was born out of a grassroots campaign that transformed school meals for 38 schools in the London borough of Richmond. The charity now works in 562 schools across all 32 London boroughs and has ambitious plans to extend its programmes beyond London.
School Food Matters exists to teach children about food, and during their time at school, children learn from a number of fully-funded food education programmes. These improve the children's understanding of healthy, sustainable meals and enables greater access to them as well.
Our Charity Officer, Jess caught up with founder Stephanie Slater to find out more.
It all began at a kitchen table! I was a parent perplexed by the school food offered to her two small children: frozen food, unappealing and quite often unidentifiable. I then heard a head teacher declare that children at his primary school couldn't identify an onion, let alone know what to do with it. There was clearly a job to be done.
Outside of your usual educational programmes, how has the pandemic affected your work?
School Food Matters provides fully funded food education programmes to schools. Our experience delivering these programmes informs and strengthens our campaigns, bringing the voices of children, parents and teachers to government policy-makers.
What we don't do is deliver food to hungry children, but then Coronavirus happened...
On Friday 20th March 2020, the PM announced that schools would close, and the Department for Education scrambled to work out how to feed the 1.3 million children entitled to free school meals. The team at School Food Matters was well placed to respond to this challenge. Since 2007, the charity had been working with schools and senior leaders to better understand the challenge of getting school food right. Through SFM, the decision makers at City Hall and Westminster had a pipeline to the front line - to the people that were dealing with families struggling to access enough food to feed their families well. And so began the task of getting weekly dispatches to those policy-makers, in the hope that guidance would be framed around lived experience, truly reflecting the needs of schools, children and their families.
We also found ourselves answering phone calls from anxious parents and even children, all trying to work out how to access food during lockdown. We came to realise that when families don't know where to turn, they google 'school food' and get School Food Matters.
How did Abel & Cole get involved?
By this point there was more practical work to be done. SFM had recruited a five-person team to deliver a five-year childhood obesity programme with Guy's and St Thomas' Charity in Southwark and Lambeth schools. With a team in place and a funder ready to respond to the emerging food crisis, SFM quickly put together the Breakfast Boxes programme. We were thrilled when Abel & Cole came on board and offered 2,000 pieces of fruit a week to be distributed to schools.
In week one the team delivered 476 boxes packed with healthy breakfasts to families in Lambeth and Southwark; by week five SFM was delivering over 10,000 boxes, such was the level of need. I can confirm we're now close to delivering a total of 1 million breakfasts.
The programme continued throughout the summer holidays and helped to inform the campaign to extend support for free school meals until children returned to school in September. The campaign was ultimately won by one eloquent footballer but behind the scenes SFM was hard at work with colleagues at Sustain, Food Foundation, Soil Association, Jamie Oliver and Chefs in Schools.
Months later, with funding from Unicef, Breakfast Boxes continued in Southwark across Christmas and into February half term with Abel & Cole continuing to support families with a generous offer of delicious fresh fruit (around 14 tonnes in all!).
What has been the highlight of your recent projects?
Apart from Breakfast Boxes, which was an unexpected departure from our normal work, we're very proud to have been able to deliver all our food education programmes, despite COVID restrictions.
Schools received virtual visits from chefs, beekeepers, marketing experts and farmers. Our school gardener, Cath, was even able to set up mini allotments in schools so that children could enjoy outdoor learning and guarantee a bumper crop of veg! In 2021, we have ambitious plans to take our food education programmes on the road, exploring regions across the UK. You can read about these plans for 2020-2025, here.
We're all looking forward to switching focus back to food education and nutritious school meals once the initial battle against COVID-19 and food security settles. But we suspect that the case for a more resilient food system has been made and there's still work to be done to convince policy-makers to rethink how we feed our most vulnerable young people. The first step we'll be taking is to urge the government to take heed of the third ask in the National Food Strategy, championed by Marcus Rashford. To extend eligibility for free school meals to every family in receipt of Universal Credit, so that no child goes hungry.