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Serving up school food for the planet in Middlesbrough

Middlesbrough food partnership have been hard at work transforming school food so it’s kinder for the planet and better for the kids.

Serving up food for the planet. Credit: Middlesbrough Food Partnership

Serving up food for the planet. Credit: Middlesbrough Food Partnership

In 2022, Middlesbrough Food Partnership received Sustainable Food Places funding to run a Food for the Planet campaign. Their goal? To shake up the menus in their local schools to make them better for the pupils and for the planet. The Food Partnership built a strong collaboration with Middlesbrough Council, Quorn, who are a big employer in their area, and ProVeg, an organisation that provides a free service to increase the health and sustainability of school food.

Around 30 schools, mostly primaries, are contracted to the local authority for school food provision. But the schools were responsible for setting their own menus, with little coordination. Menus rarely had a vegetarian option, and where they did these weren’t necessarily healthy, for example cheese slices or pizza. Salad bars offered ‘coronation chicken, ham, quiche’ and spaghetti hoops were a common offer for the vegetable side.

The food partnership had been warned that they’d face resistance to change from the schools, but that wasn’t the case. More than 20 of Middlesbrough’s school chefs met at the end of August for a training event from ProVeg. The chefs were supported to prepare four delicious plant-based dishes, and watched a cooking demonstration from the team at Quorn Foods.

Armed with these recipes, the schools launched new menus in September 2022, with six meat-free days included in a 20-day cycle. Every day includes a plant-based main option, as you can see in this sample menu. The recipes were taken from ProVeg’s School Plates resources, which can be found here.

The menu updates were met with a small backlash after being shared on social media. However, after parents were invited to plant-based taster sessions, attended by over 200 people, they found there was more support and a more positive response to the changes. The feedback from these events indicated that the new menus were particularly popular with Muslim families, due to the Halal status of vegetarian and Quorn options.

The food partnership also helped to organise a ‘Plant Futures’ workshop with Made in Hackney, which was attended by 17 teachers, cooks, procurement managers and community group leaders. Public Health South Tees Holiday Activities & Food (HAF) sent two staff members to the workshop and, as a result, added a plant-based option to all HAF menus over Christmas 2022.

Alongside the workshop, the food partnership worked with the Nicholas Postgate Catholic Academy Trust, which has two secondary and 11 primary schools in Middlesbrough and coordinates its own school meals. Trinity Catholic College now offers meat-free options at open evenings and have delivered a lesson on the benefits of plant-based food to Year 10 Food Technology students. The school has pledged to introduce a practical vegan cooking lesson, add a plant-based theory lesson to the Year 8 curriculum, and set a Key Stage 3 homework research task on plant-based options. The food partnership met with the Academy Trust’s chef, who has since introduced a vegan burger to all the primary schools and plans to introduce more plant-based food. 

Teesside University were also given support and advice to develop a Sustainable Food Policy and open their first vegan outlet.

But the food partnership didn’t want to stop there. They also collaborated with the Public Health team to produce an interactive, online training module, highlighting the environmental impact of food. This is being promoted to people working in elderly care and early years, to start, and care home cooks are being encouraged to introduce meat-free days. When the course is completed, participants receive plant-based recipe books.

Joe Dunne, who coordinates Middlesbrough Food Partnership, says:

“We are delighted with what this important campaign has managed to achieve in challenging circumstances. The work in partnership with Middlesbrough Council to transform school meals and introduce meat free and healthier options is a legacy that we are extremely proud of, and has paved the way for so much more to be achieved in the coming years. We also feel the nucleus of a very important ‘meat free’ movement has been started, and one we look forward to supporting and seeing great things from.”

The Food for the Planet campaign supports, amongst other actions, eating less and better meat and dairy. We believe that you don’t need to eliminate meat completely from diets to live within the planet’s boundaries. We can reduce our meat and dairy in the first place by making some simple switches with plant-based sources of protein such as beans and pulses and buying, serving and eating less imported meat and dairy that does not meet UK production standards. Better meat and dairy prioritises systems that ensure high standards of welfare for livestock and low impact on nature, biodiversity and low use of antibiotics.

If you’re inspired to take action, check out the Food for the Planet campaign.

Published 18 Jan 2023

Food for the Planet: Food for the Planet is helping local authorities, businesses and organisations take simple actions to tackle the climate and nature emergency through food.

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