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Public procurement for palatary education

Author: Professor Corinna Hawkes

Director of the Centre for Food Policy at City University London and Co-Chair of the Global Nutrition Report

Put yourself into the mind of young child. A child who might be hungry. A child who might hate everything except cookies and cola. A child who loves to eat sweetcorn on the husk followed by strawberries. 

Now follow that child to school - if they are lucky enough to attend one. Perhaps school is the first place they’ll see food that day. Perhaps it’s a place of dread because the food is so bad.  Perhaps they are looking forward to the delicious healthy food available there.

These are just three scenarios. There are lots of different kids from a lot of different backgrounds. Some may be too thin - underweight and undernourished. Some may be too short compared to their growth potential -- a clear indicator of inadequate nutrition in early life. Some may be overweight, have Type II diabetes, and/or have early indicators of later non-communicable chronic diseases. Some, of course, may be perfectly healthy, but data in the Global Nutrition Report indicates this is not nearly enough.

I am not the first one to say that healthy school food makes sense for all of these kids. There’s been enough written about school food to fill several libraries. I’m also not the first to say that it’s not fair to expect schools to solve the global diet crisis alone; we need actions throughout the food system. 

What I want to pick up on is school food as an example of a policy tension. Here in England a couple of years back we were exposed to news coverage of mums handing chips (fries) through the school gate. Their kids, they said, didn’t like the new healthier food introduced in the wake of Jamie Oliver’s school food campaign. In the US, there was a media scuffle around the perceived unpopularity of school meals after new standards were introduced. Even though there has been a lot of unfair and inaccurate reporting on this, they do reflect a reality: we can’t expect changing supply to solve the problem over night. Kids eyes do not necessarily light up with an appreciative smile when faced with foods they are not familiar with; parents and school food personnel with tell you there are foods kids “just won’t eat.” Kids everywhere in the world are choosing to buy the cheap sweet and salty snacks on sale in and around schools. 

This is the argument used by detractors of interventions in the food supply: look, they say, it’s all about consumer preferences. As the Nestle CEO one put it: "We could stop selling ice cream, but people are still going to want to eat ice cream.” Let’s change demand and then supply will follow. Education needs to be the primary entry point for policy. 

But that’s exactly the point: healthy public procurement is a form of education. The education of the palate, the learning of social norms. It’s a process that takes time. We know that most of our food loves and hates are learned over time (I recommend Bee Wilson’s excellent recent book on the topic). We know that modelling from parents, peers, teachers and role models makes a huge difference to what we eat. 

That’s not to say kids aren’t finicky and we as adults have things we just don’t like. Taste matters. There’s a reason why kids will choose the crunchier, tastier apple over a flaccid tasteless one. Providing tasteless but healthy food and hoping children will learn to like it is several steps too far on the learning scale.   It’s something we have to be very careful about when we design our school food environments -- and why initiatives like school gardens and short chains to tastier food are a good idea. 

Yes, in our school food policies we need to respect children’s palates as well as nurture them. Many of us know from experience it’s a tough job, a job made even tougher when kids have access to junk food. But its what we need to do to if we are to be successful in our fight against obesity and other forms of malnutrition. It’s not something that will happen overnight. We do need to be patient. But we will get there if we are committed to change.

In the meantime, one of my - perhaps wistful - desires is that we stop perpetuating the false division between “supply” and “demand” in the policy debate. We know from looking at the differences in the school meals provided around the world that what is supplied influences demand -- and vice versa. It’s not one or the other.

Analytical constructs are useful. They are there to help us understand how the world works and, therefore, how we can change it. But they are points of departure. Let’s not be hampered by artificial divisions. Our palates are the sum of many things: we need policy that nurtures a love of good food by changing supply in order to change demand, gradually. 

Corinna will be presenting at the 2016 International Congress on Obesity on the subject of healthy public procurement on May 4th, 1030-12.30, Ballroom B. She will also be co-chairing a Global Nutrition Report event at 12.45 on May 2nd in the ExpoHub. Please email her directly on if you’d like to attend the latter event. 

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