School canteens form an integral part of sustainability education

School canteens form an integral part of sustainability education

September 24, 2021

School canteens form an integral part of sustainability education

Created to make up for food shortages among the poorest, school canteens have evolved and have become veritable educational tools, their goals ranging from health and socialization to sustainability and waste reduction

Eating at school, and most of all everyone eating the same food, is a fundamental aspect of schooling. The Italian Ministry of Education vindicated this aspect in 2016, when parent protests over the poor quality of food served in canteens led to a Turin court ruling enabling families to send their children to school with a packed lunch, the same way as in many countries around the world. Teachers and school leaders have strenuously opposed the deregulation of canteens, a surprising decision rooted in the Italian teaching curriculum, which acknowledges shared meals as being of educational and social value, so much so that teaching staff act as supervisors at lunchtime, especially for infants and younger children.

A long-standing concept

The idea of using school canteens to educate and smooth out inequalities is barely a new one. Social historians have stated that the first organized school lunches were served in 1790 in Munich, Germany by Benjamin Thompson, a U.S.-born physicist who founded the Poor People's Institute. His institution employed both adults and children to manufacture uniforms for the army, in exchange for clothing, food and a basic primary education.

But it was in the United Kingdom where school canteens were institutionalized, by the introduction of school meals in the 19th century. The first national such policy was published there in 1941, to address malnutrition caused by the war. It established nutritional principles, requiring balanced meals that included appropriate levels of protein, fat and calories.

School canteens were also introduced in the United States to even out inequalities in the early industrial era. Philadelphia and Boston were the first two cities to institute school lunches. Organizations such as Women's Education and the Starr Center Association started serving students with hot meals at an affordable price. The federal government was not directly involved until the Great Depression of the 1920s, when the crisis in agricultural production and the impoverishment of large sections of the population found a remedy, albeit partial, in school canteens.

Today, the need to feed young children – still felt in low-income countries but also in the large pockets of deprivation in industrialized countries – is flanked by the need to educate and mold lifestyles and food choices, as well as to provide education in sustainability.

A worldwide phenomenon

A survey conducted in 2014 on behalf of the European Commission by the Joint Research Centre in the Lombardy town of Ispra noted that all 34 countries and regions investigated regulate their school meals, the purposes of which are to improve children’s nutrition, reduce obesity, educate them to make healthy choices and, in recent years, to consider the environmental impact of what they consume. The Nordic countries, with Finland, Estonia and Norway at the forefront, were the first to take sustainability into consideration in the ingredients used in school meals, although Italy leads in terms of the educational function of the lunch break.

The "Linee di indirizzo nazionale per la ristorazione scolastica" [National Guidelines for School Catering], drawn up by the Italian Ministry of Health in 2010, “shift from the need to foster correct eating habits from infancy onwards, to promote health and prevent chronic and degenerative diseases (diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, osteoporosis, etc.), for which improper nutrition is one of the main risk factors,” states the foreword. The guidelines also define “access to and adoption of a healthy, correct diet” as “one of the fundamental duties to achieve the best possible state of health we can expect, especially in the early years of life”.

The document continues: “school meals must not be seen merely as basic fulfillment of nutritional requirements, but should be considered a significant, constant opportunity for direct education and health promotion to children, in which teachers and parents are also involved.” Entire families’ habits can therefore be influenced, by means of a guide to food choices from an early age.

Together with Lombardy, the Emilia-Romagna region was one of the first to lay down policies to manage school meals, in the early 2000s. According to the Linee strategiche per la ristorazione scolastica [strategic guidelines for school catering], canteens have several objectives: 

a protective function, because food is prepared following rules of hygiene in professional facilities, and stored properly until served; 

a preventive function, because the content of meals is decided on in conjunction with dieticians and is adapted to differing requirements as children grow up; 

an educational role, given that it provides teachers with a starting point to explain in practice the value of food, how it is cultivated and produced, healthy eating habits and the principles of disease prevention by means of the food children eat; 

a value of socialization, as it teaches children to sit together at the table, share the food served equally and clean up the space to make it pleasant for others;

finally, a cultural value, bolstered by the introduction of dishes from traditions from further afield than Italy, and to represent the cultures of the many children of migrants, who may have arrived recently or longer ago.

Waste reduction from infancy onwards

While the Italian experience – where everyone in the canteen eats the same food as decided on by experts in nutrition – is considered one of the best put together in the world, the educational value of school canteens has become a hot topic, including at an international level. Most of all, this began when an awareness of the need to focus on sustainability and the impact of the food chain on the environment was added to the usefulness of food education to prevent diseases and keep children healthy. 

For example, children tend to waste a great deal of food, especially if they are not keen on it: learning how to reduce food waste is therefore one of the main teaching objectives. A 2017 study published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition by Marije Oostindjer, of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, uses an analysis of school meals around the world to demonstrate the complexity of introducing a consideration of sustainability in school canteens. “Sustainability is not an overarching aim of school meals, but more a condition that may or may not be […] prioritized by the different stakeholders,” explains the Norwegian expert. “It is therefore not easy to answer the question “Do school meals contribute to sustainability?” This will depend on the logistics of the school meal (what foods are served, do these foods have a large carbon footprint, where are the products sourced, did they have to be transported over long distances, […] and so forth), as well as consumer behavior […]. As an example, a significant amount of food served in school meals is wasted (12% of all calories on the plate on average, with the largest share in vegetables) […]. The exact amount wasted may depend on the quality and the palatability of the food, and will need to be compared to food waste by children who do not participate in school meals.” School meals are not therefore particularly sustainable and this is one of the first topics where teachers need to intervene. 

Gamification can also be used in this role, as in the We, the Food, the Planet app, developed by the Barilla Foundation. It teaches a proper diet in a 'chat’ with the Earth, to avoid damaging the planet and misusing its resources. In the educational section of the Barilla Foundation website, teaching materials and lesson plans can be downloaded for free, for in-class work on food sustainability. All these topics can also be taken into the canteen, to test out the relationship between food, health and the environment in practice.

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