Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Myles Bremner, the former National Director of England’s School Food Plan. Published by England’s Department for Education in July 2013, the Plan outlined 17 actions to transform what children eat in British schools and how they learn about food. Myles Bremner talked with us about his work leading the development of the Plan and his passion for food systems reform, more generally.
Food Tank (FT): What sparked your passion for food systems reform, and what inspired you to dedicate yourself to improving school food?
Myles Bremner (MB): I’ve been interested in food all my life—as a child learning how to cook and garden with my parents, but also during the early part of my career working in the youth and educational sector, seeing how diet and nutrition affect overall health and wellbeing. When I was CEO of Garden Organic, I was particularly drawn to the pioneering work the organization had done in setting up school food education programs. It was a natural progression to move on to become the National Director for the School Food Plan in 2013.
FT: School food reform in the United States is also a pressing issue. Do you see any parallels between the problems with school food in the U.S. and the problems in England? Are there parallels between the solutions these two countries are adopting?
MB: Absolutely. There are parallels in both the problems and solutions. Three principles, as applicable here in England as in the U.S., drove the School Food Plan and its 17 actions to transform what children eat in school and how they learn about food.
First, school leadership is paramount—leaders must agree that a good school food culture is positive not only for pupil health but also as a key component in supporting the culture and ethos of that school. Second, good school food is about both provision and education—weaving both together to create a strong positive culture. And third, making sure that pupils themselves can get involved—the brand, design, and dining environment must all resonate with them.
The danger we must avoid is that school food becomes a “functional activity”—i.e. something that is just done to a school, rather than it being a core part of the culture of that school. Schools that don’t care that much about their food culture invariably have children who don’t eat well.
FT: Are there any groups in England, or elsewhere, that you particularly admire for their work on school food reform? What is it that makes these groups stand out to you?
MB: Working at the School Food Plan meant I was able to work with so many outstanding schools, organizations, and individuals who have done amazing things. Jeanette Orrey, the co-founder of Food for Life has been an inspiration—always supportive, but making sure we never forget that it’s always about the children.
FT: Why is it so important to improve the quality of school food? How do we engage the public in efforts to reform it?
MB: Surely the mark of a civilized nation is one that feeds its vulnerable young people good food that makes them fit, happy, healthy, and ready to learn. Good food matters—whether for health, the environment, or social justice. I think the public does indeed get it, but sometimes it can be hard to strive continually for improvements.
FT: Could you describe England’s Universal Infant Free School Meals program and how it relates to your work?
MB: Universal Infant Free School Meals, introduced in September 2014, has revolutionized school food in England. All children in the first three years of school—aged five, six and seven—can now receive a free, nutritious, tasty, and hot lunch and more than 85 percent do so every day. Evidence has shown that when children eat together, it helps improve their diets and contributes to increased academic attainment. While providing a free lunch doesn’t guarantee that it will be good, nor that children will eat it, Universal Infant Free School Meals has undoubtedly been a transformational policy.
FT: Could you talk about your work with the School Food Plan? What are the next steps for this project?
MB: The work of the School Food Plan office over the last three years has been to implement the 17 actions in the Plan. The changes, such as compulsory food education, revised food standards, and Universal Infant Free School Meals, are now embedded into every day delivery. While the actual School Food Plan office has now closed, the actions carry on, and the many different organizations who contributed to the Plan’s delivery are still united through the School Food Plan Alliance to ensure a successful school food culture in England.
FT: What do you see as the greatest benefits of having gardens in schools?
MB: As CEO of Garden Organic, I chaired a government review into the benefits of school gardens. The Report, called “Food Growing in Schools,” showed considerable benefits for pupil’s health, environmental awareness, social cohesion, and support in experiential learning—especially in science, technology, engineering, and math. The amazing news from the report was that 86 percent of schools in England had a growing garden, although its usage with pupils was varied. A vibrant school garden supports young people to grasp the awe and wonder of the world.