Why red meat-free school menus fail children and environment
03 February 2022
Local authorities stand accused of using climate change debate as an excuse to reduce or remove the red meat offering on school menus.
As a livestock farmer and food business director, Mike Gooding understands more than most about the nutritional and sustainability credentials of food.
The youngest of Mr Goodings four children is at primary school and he reckons councils are letting down pupils like her, and the wider society.
He believes they are failing to address the sustainability challenges with menus that contain precious little dairy and even less meat, are nutritionally poor and not sustainable.
Public sector catering and procurement more generally was thrown into sharp focus recently when Oxfordshire County Council set out plans to ban meat and dairy products from being served at its official events.
A motion put forward by a Green Party councillor stated that global meat and dairy production was a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation.
The motion is due to be voted on in March.
Mr Gooding is concerned that what he describes as a ‘popularist obsession with carbon’ is now seeping into school meal menus.
Nobody is arguing about the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the carbon argument is used as a convenience for moving away from the primary objective of providing good, nutritious and sustainable food, he says.
If people want to eat particular diets that is their choice, but public sector catering, when good wholesome food is a requirement, is not the place to assert that opinion.
Sustainability is not simply about carbon, it must be a balance between economic sustainability, environmental sustainability and ethical sustainability, Mr Gooding argues.
All three elements must be positive to be truly sustainable.
Yet some schools have removed meat from the lunch menu entirely.
At Dale Community Primary School in Derby, a school that is responsible for its own catering procedures and meal provision, the school governors have specified no-meat meals will be served in school and have made meat substitutes available as well.
Quorn hotdogs and burgers sit alongside pizza, pasties and vegan sausage rolls.
Extensively-reared, grass-fed beef and lamb offers much better nutrition and sustainability than many other foods, Mr Gooding insists.
These include the unsustainable and more expensive plant-based options, of which there are many, and where sustainability claims over water and land use do not stack up.
High amounts of processing are involved, often with artificial ingredients added to provide some nutritional value.
The ethics of choice, good public sector catering and nutrition cannot be ignored in pandering to a popularist obsession with carbon, particularly when the science is clear but, at best, the rhetoric ill-informed, says Mr Gooding.
Mr Gooding says underlying the choices is lack of investment. Currently, our children are denied good, balanced nutrition in many schools through lack of investment in school catering, ridiculous budgets, lack of nutritional awareness, and policy that fails to understand sustainability.
Up until the 1980s, school meals were almost universally prepared on site, but the intervening decades have seen huge pressure on school budgets; this, in some cases, has resulted in kitchens being stripped out and replaced by classrooms.
Mr Gooding believes removing meat from some menus altogether is a cost-cutting exercise by some authorities, under the guise of environmental concerns.
A kitchen that doesnt use any meat has fewer compliance requirements, such as assigned chopping boards for meat, separation of products in storage and preparation, and reduced staff training.
If I wanted to look for ways to reduce costs in a kitchen an easy option would be to go vegetarian, he says.
But if the point of public sector catering is to provide good, wholesome nutrition then that point is being lost, he adds.
There is lots of science about the value of micronutrients not only in our children’s diets, but for all of us so it should be applied to all public sector catering, including where good nutrition is critical, such as patients in recovery in hospital.
Jonathan Foot, AHDBs head of environment, says carbon alone should not be used as a simple indicator for some foods being better for the environment.
The UK is one of the most sustainable places in the world to produce red meat and dairy, he insists, adding:
Alternatives can often have wide-ranging negative effects on the environment, such as deforestation, threatening biodiversity, high water demands, or international shipping.
AHDB supports the Food a Fact of Life and Countryside Classroom education schemes, which help children to understand where food comes from and how it is produced.
In some regions, concerns are being raised by a failure by councils to source locally.
For example, last autumn, the Farmers Union of Wales challenged Anglesey County Council about procurement policies for school meals at primary schools on the island.
Union officials say the menu offered to children does not incorporate enough local and Welsh produce.
But some councils are bucking the trend. In Lancashire, the county council has gone as far as developing a bespoke cheese with a low salt content with a local supplier, and it has also worked with a local high-end yoghurt supplier on a range of low-sugar products.
Children at schools in Aberdeenshire are offered fresh meat that is Red Tractor or Quality Meat Scotland assured, free-range eggs and locally-sourced ingredients wherever possible.
Love British Food an umbrella body for hundreds of organisations that have an interest in food and the countryside believes a long-term view must now be taken of school catering, as an investment for the future.
This, it recommends, should be done through good, nutritional food and an education on how to eat. Public sector catering should also be used as an opportunity to enrich the local area, it adds.
While some councils are seizing the environmental argument to remove meat and dairy from menus, organisations representing farmers say the case for local food purchasing is a stronger one if sustainability is the issue under scrutiny.
Rhys Llywelyn, market development manager at Hybu Cig Cymru (HCC), says the Welsh levy payer body regularly engages with authorities responsible for public procurement, making the case on local purchasing for settings such as schools and healthcare.
Its a challenging sector, he says, with an ongoing squeeze on public finances making cost undoubtedly the main driver of decisions.
Mr Llywelyn says anti-meat groups are active in the education sector, trying to influence purchasing decisions and also how the curriculum is delivered.
Over the past year, HCC has prioritised producing a range of brand-new classroom resources so that pupils get balanced messages on food, farming, health and the environment.
Welsh red meat has a positive story to tell in terms of sustainability, being often far lower in terms of emissions than imported alternatives; its important for the future that we find ways of taking these considerations into account in public procurement.
Food buying standards
MPs have also been critical of the government food buying standards. In April 2021, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said the government was missing the opportunity to support small businesses, improve animal welfare and promote sustainability within public sector rules for buying food.
In its report Public Sector Procurement of Food, the committee called on the government to address outdated standards on nutrition and animal welfare, and close loopholes in the existing rules.
Noting the startling lack of monitoring of existing food procurement standards, including by government departments and NHS hospitals, the report demanded action to push bodies to ensure compliance.
Political drivers for change
Public sector procurement and its failure to be more focused on British produce has been debated for years and very little has changed.
But following Brexit and the COP26 Climate Change Conference in 2021, there has been a redoubling of efforts by champions of local sourcing.
Campaign group Sustain is calling for changes to the governments buying standards for food and catering services, and It says more money should be spent on high-quality domestic produce.
Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy also recommends that these standards be redesigned to ensure that taxpayer money is spent on food that is both healthy and sustainable.
New government policies on food are expected to be published in the coming weeks. considerations into account in public procurement.