Children as young as eight are now taught basic cooking skills after pressure from leading chefs and health campaigners saw cookery lessons, for the first time ever, become a compulsory part of the school curriculum. At primary schools students are given practical lessons in how to combine ingredients to produce simple, healthy food and at secondary school they are taught a number of different meals and a range of cooking techniques.
The national curriculum, which was published in September 2013 and came into effect the following year, highlights the importance of "instilling a love of cooking" in pupils from a young age. And yet cooking is a skill that has been pushed to the sidelines in recent years, as increasingly busy lives have led to more people opting for convenience over culinary flair.
The shift is certainly having a negative impact on our health, with the NHS spending around £6b a year on diet-related diseases. Earlier this month it was reported that the UK is seeing a small but worrying rise in the number of children developing type 2 diabetes - a condition which is generally associated with adults and linked to obesity.
The latest figures for England and Wales show that there are 533 children and young people with type 2 diabetes, up from about 500 the year before. This represents just 2% of all diabetes cases in children, but the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents 370 councils with responsibility for public health, says the figure is too high. It believes cases will continue to rise unless bold action is taken in the Government's much-awaited childhood obesity strategy; the publication of which has been repeatedly postponed.
The LGA is calling for new measures, such as councils having the power to ban junk food advertising near schools, greater tap water provisions in schools, teaspoon sugar labelling and a reduction of sugar in fizzy drinks.
LGA Community Wellbeing spokesperson councillor Izzi Seccombe, says: "Obesity is usually linked with major health conditions later on in life, but we are already seeing the early consequences of childhood obesity, with more and more children developing type 2 diabetes as a result. It is a major concern that we are seeing this in children and teenagers."
She adds: "This is a wake-up call for the nation as the Government faces a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take radical action in its forthcoming childhood obesity strategy."
Data from the National Child Measurement Programme, which measures the height and weight of around one million school children in England every year, shows one in 10 four- and five-year-olds and one in five 10- and 11-year-olds are obese. Health experts think the rise in problems such as diabetes and obesity are partly down to poor levels of knowledge about healthy eating in schools and at home.
Campaign for better food education
This view is echoed by chef and restaurateur Tom Aikens, who is an avid campaigner for a proper food education.
He is calling for a radical shake-up in the way healthy eating is taught in schools and has highlighted that a more structured approach to food learning could ease the obesity and dietary issues challenging the NHS. Aikens has been working with the School Food Matters charity since 2009, and both he and chef Ruth Quinlan have been announced as ambassadors for the Schools to Market 2016 campaign to educate children about where their food comes from.
The project will see children from across the country visit farms and take part in a series of cooking demonstrations and marketing workshops. "I am passionate about helping children learn about where their food comes from," Aikens says. "I've been holding basic cooking classes, teaching children to make anything from pasta to chutneys. I cook with them, discuss ingredients and take in items they may not have seen before.
"The children are really receptive and I've never had any negativity from them. They are willing and want to learn about cooking which, I believe, is a vital life skill."
He adds: "There is a problem in society in that some people have no basic cooking skill level, which has resulted in a ready-meal culture. It should be a guarantee that children are equipped with the necessary skills to feed themselves adequately and properly when they leave school. We need to teach children the benefits of cooking and good health."
Aikens argues that the cost of introducing a more structured approach to cooking would far outweigh the millions of pounds it costs to treat people with health problems as a result of a poor diet.
"It would be a lovely idea to have kitchens in all schools to give children the correct start in life," he says.
Training and development kitchen
Eden Foodservice, which won the Best Use of Technology award at the 2015 Cateys, opened its first training and development kitchen in Bristol on 19 April. The firm says it is committed to supporting schools in the delivery of food education in fun and engaging ways, over and above the School Food Plan.
A key function of the new facility, which has been awarded the Food for Life Catering Mark, will be to offer nutritionally balanced cookery workshops for pupils and school cooks with Eden's team of chefs and nutritionists. It will also provide schools that do not have an on-site kitchen with the means to give pupils experience as part of their learning and development.
The launch event saw 10 local pupils from Elmlea Junior School take part in a pizza and breadmaking workshop led by Eden's development chef and training manager for the south west, Graham Lewis. The session covered breadmaking techniques such as kneading, dividing and shaping, along with pizza-making using wholemeal flour and fresh vegetables and herbs.
LACA Main Event
This year's LACA Main Event will take place at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole from 6 to 8 July and will have the theme "Lead, Inspire, Empower". It will be headlined by Tony Draper, president of the National Association of Head Teachers; Dr Hilary Jones; and Jas Hawker of the Red Arrows.
The event will also incorporate the Education Catering Exhibition, which will showcase a range of products to help educational caterers.
A variety of workshop sessions will also be on the agenda, along with competitions such the Big School Bake Off, McDougalls Young Baking Team of the Year and Finishing Touches, held in conjunction with the Craft Guild of Chefs.
Talented school catering teams up and down the country will be recognised at the LACA Awards for Excellence dinner on 7 July.
LACA deeply worried about rise in takeaways near schools
The Lead Association for Catering in Education (LACA) and the Children's Food Trust have responded to research which suggests more than 5,000 takeaways have opened within walking distance of schools in the past seven years.
The data, compiled for The Daily Mail by mapping firm Mapmechanics, found some 5,627 new takeaways have appeared close to schools in just seven years, with 528 having opened in the last 12 months alone.
According to the research, which is based on the location of businesses logged by the Ordnance Survey, more than one in four takeaway shops across the UK is located within a five-minute walk of a primary or secondary school. The total number of fast food outlets near schools currently stands at 15,327, up from 9,700 in 2009.
Peter McGrath, chair of LACA, says: "The rise in the number of fast-food outlets in close proximity to schools across Britain is deeply worrying. Most often food served in these outlets does not meet the standards set by the Government to ensure children get the right nutritional balance they need to grow and develop into healthy adults.
"School meals are legally bound to be nutritionally balanced as caterers follow government standards legislation that regulates this. Meals cooked and served in schools are demonstrably healthier than fast food and menus are designed to provide nutrition and variety as well as flavour."
Jo Nicholas, head of research at the Children's Food Trust, adds: "We've always backed schools wanting to restrict children's access to foods high in fat, sugar and salt right outside the school gates and we've welcomed local authorities using their planning powers to help.
"But with so many fast-food outlets continuing to open near schools and the consequences of poor diet for children showing no sign of abating, the forthcoming child obesity strategy must set out better support for planners and elected members to consider and use health outcomes for children in their decision-making."
London saw the biggest increase with an 89% rise in new outlets since 2009, followed by Scotland at 59%, the North West at 57% and the West Midlands with 55%.
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