Food for thought

If children are hungry they can’t learn. If supermarket waste food is not collected it goes to landfill. Former head teacher Nathan Atkinson made the connection with remarkable results

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Nathan Atkinson’s first day back after October half-term was a stressful one. In his first year as head of Richmond Hill Primary School in Leeds, the gas in the kitchens failed and children had to be served sandwiches for dinner.

The behaviour of a number of children was “really off the wall”, says Atkinson, and when he spoke to them it became clear their frustration stemmed from the lack of a hot meal at lunchtime. That realisation, in 2014, spurred Atkinson to find innovative ways of feeding them that has since grown into a city-wide project – and looks set to become a national one.

The school is in the LS9 postcode area, one of the most deprived in the country.

“One of the children said he had been looking forward to coming back to school as he said he had only eaten sandwiches and the occasional packet of crisps or dry cereal for the past week, and he was really looking forward to a roast dinner,” says Atkinson. “That really stopped me in my tracks. I wrote the word ‘hunger’ on my office wall and vowed to do something about it.”

“I wrote the word ‘hunger’ on my office wall and vowed to do something about it.”

Atkinson set up Fuel for School with the Real Junk Food Project’s founder Adam Smith after they began looking for ways to use some of the tonnes of food wasted every day to feed pupils and their families. Change didn’t happen overnight, Atkinson admits, but he began by putting a toaster in every classroom and extending registration to include a free breakfast for every child. He calls free school dinners a “good thing” but says children’s concentration and attentiveness can be affected if they come to school hungry.

“A high percentage of children attend school each day without having eaten and some haven’t even had a drink, so I thought that would break the fast of the previous day. The traditional model of education front loads key learning during morning sessions when children are at their most productive, so by the time they get to lunch it’s too late,” he says.

The UK has some of the highest levels of hunger and deprivation among the world’s richest nations, according to a United Nations report on child health and wellbeing published in June. It also shows that nearly one in five children under the age of 15 doesn’t eat enough nutritious food.

After making contact with Smith, who established the Real Junk Food Project in Leeds four years ago, Atkinson discovered that although Richmond Hill is a “food desert”, with few shops selling fresh fruit and vegetables, it does have a large wholesaler. Emerging with 27 boxes of bananas and 10 crates of cucumber, he began cooking up ideas for a host of projects that would make use of “the vast amounts of entirely edible waste food” created daily by supermarkets, caterers, independent traders and wholesalers.

Today even the free breakfast of toast for all 630 pupils is provided using intercepted bread. Further inspiration for ways of ensuring food was getting to children and their families came during a visit to an experimental school in China that had a “coffee classroom” with “plush chairs and crushed velvet”. He likens the visit to having afternoon tea at the Savoy.

“It was an amazing space in the school that they said was to teach their children etiquette so that when they travelled the world they didn’t embarrass their Chinese culture. I knew straight away I was going to do something similar.”

Atkinson had a café designed and built in the school to replicate a high street coffee shop. It opens three days a week and both makes use of and distributes all the food that is secured. Regular coffee mornings were also held there so that parents didn’t have to sit at small desks and tables. He also set up a food boutique – a fancy name for the market stall that he bought to hand out a variety of food, including fruit and vegetables, pastries and cakes, bread, cheese, cooking oil and tinned products.

Both the café and market stall had the further benefit of breaking down the divide between the school and the local community, says Atkinson, who set up a pay as you feel system so that people could offer time, skills and food swaps, as well as cash by means of an honesty box.

“The only problem we had was people kept bringing it in, saying don’t leave this outside, someone will steal it,” says Atkinson, who then began to look for ways of keeping the school open throughout the year.

“If you compare schools to businesses in terms of infrastructure and budget, would you close your doors for extended periods of time – as long as six weeks in the summer – and leave a skeleton staff in charge?” asks Atkinson.

He found a way to create two 52-week jobs so that the café and boutique could open through term time and school holidays. According to a report by a cross-party group of MPs and peers this summer, up to three million children are at risk of going hungry during the school holidays, many of them existing on diets of crisps.

“Children who are eligible for free school meals don’t suddenly stop being hungry in the school holidays, and this meant we could provide food for the families all the way through the year,” says Atkinson. “Families having access to school during the holidays ensures additional support and guidance can be given when required to families in need.”

Fuel for School saves six tonnes of food a week from landfill – an amount expected to increase

The success of the project at Richmond Hill Primary School prompted Atkinson and Smith to organise an awareness day in December 2015 that involved providing breakfast for 10,000 children from Leeds, Bradford, Sunderland and Doncaster, using food that would have otherwise been thrown away. Atkinson and Smith then decided to launch Fuel for School with the aim of removing hunger as a barrier to learning, improving children’s wellbeing and highlighting food waste.

It now operates in 51 schools in Leeds, providing a weekly delivery of food that is used in a variety of ways, from stocking market stalls to providing ingredients for cooking activities and supplementing breakfast clubs. Schools in Bradford, Wigan, Durham, Sheffield and Leicester have signed up, with plans to open in Liverpool and Newcastle this school year.

Fuel for School saves six tonnes of food from landfill each week and that amount is expected to increase. The project has attracted local media attention and Leeds Beckett University is planning to include a module on Fuel for School as part of a social innovation degree it is creating.

Atkinson left Richmond Hill after it became part of a forced academisation programme and he “made a choice not to be part of the Ruth Gorse Academy Trust”. He plans to focus on Fuel for School, which delivers food to schools 52 weeks a year, along with lesson plans and activities.

“A lot of it’s about education – the things some of us can take for granted – as when someone said to me: ‘Oh, I had some of this for the first time and it was lovely’ and when I looked it was broccoli. Or letting people know about food labelling, that with things like potatoes you can take the bits out, and if it smells horrible, don’t eat it.”

Although his focus is on providing food, Atkinson clearly has concerns about the results-driven focus of schools that is squeezing out subjects like arts. He thinks we could be storing up problems by developing children who have no capacity for broader creative thinking and by undermining learning environments.

“To truly be ready to learn you need your needs met, including emotional needs. We’re in danger of suppressing that in the drive for results. Some schools focus on standards and getting gold stars but it’s important to look at other things.”

Although the project grew out of a school in one of Leeds’ most deprived areas, Atkinson says it’s not just the children of very poor families who are affected. The all-parliamentary group’s report on hunger showed that along with the one million children who receive free school meals who were underfed during the summer holidays, there were a further two million with working parents.

“It’s not about feeding poor people. We’re about food and sharing food. It’s an unspoken poverty that can happen to people at any time – the working poor, even the relatively well paid. If you lose that job the first cutback can be food.”

Fuel bills are also a problem. “A family might have bread but can’t toast it; the same for electricity for the fridge to keep your milk cold. So you have dry cereal. There is a lot that goes on that people don’t talk about.”

Photo: Lee Brown

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