In January this year, the Lancet medical journal published a revolutionary article declaring that Europeans need to eat 77% less red meat and 15 times as many nuts and seeds if we want to achieve sustainable health for humanity and our planet. According to an international commission comprised of 37 scientists from 16 countries, obesity affects as many as two billion people while 820 million do not have enough to eat and a further two billion are malnourished. An unhealthy diet, they concluded, poses a greater risk to our mortality than unsafe sex and tobacco, drug and alcohol abuse combined.

Spain is a big consumer of meat in general. According to Greenpeace, the only European country to eat more last year was Luxembourg while figures from the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture indicate that Spaniards consumed an average of 32 grams of processed meat every day in 2018, despite it being classed by the World Health Organisation as a Group 1 Carcinogen in 2015 and a trigger for obesity.

Ahead of the game, King’s College’s Nexalia Services had its own nutritional shake-up at the start of the school year, which has taken their nutritionally aware approach to school meals to the next level, reducing processed meat and food in general to the absolute minimum and striking deep fried foods off the menu altogether. “What remains of processed meat might be a bit of ham or occasionally meatballs,” says King’s in-house nutritionist Marina Escudero. “But we look closely at the ingredients so that we are offering only the best.”

Marina adds that King’s primary pupils were particularly sad to see the back of fried foods, but their absence makes it easier to avoid processed and frozen products.

Changing eating habits is of course a gradual process and a case of re-educating palates, as young children in particular have their own ideas about what they are prepared to put in their bodies: “But much progress has been made since the 1990s, when pizza and chips were frequent items on the menu,” according to the school’s Vice President Nicholas Fry.”

“The children loved it,” he says. “But it was not so great from a health perspective. Education in the classroom is fine, but we also have to teach our children manners and how to eat and that means eating healthily.” By the mid-2000s, hot dogs had become a distant memory and soft drinks dispensers were banned from the school premises. A salad bar was set up and fresh produce cooked on site. Pizza and chips were a weekly treat rather than a daily staple. The revolution had begun.

The students have taken the changes on board, but in the last year they have had to make something of a mental leap as the last remnants of the 1990s menu are fazed out and replaced with unadulterated healthy fare. Not only is this aimed at improving their physical health, but also their moods, energy levels and mental wellbeing.

“We have included far more vegetables on the menu and made fruit available all day for the younger ones, and we have introduced a lot of wholemeal products,” explains Marina, who has a degree in food science and technology and also a diploma in Human Nutrition and Diet. “The meat on offer is low fat and is mainly poultry but it if is red meat, we make sure it is also a lean cut. There are plenty of pulses and there is a vegetarian option and a vegan option. We have on occasion offered vegetable proteins on the main menu, but it is a case of taking it gradually as we have to take into account how the children react.”

So how do you get students, particularly the smaller ones, to take on board a 30% increase in the amount of pulses and vegetables on their plates?

“Our plan is to do workshops with the students on how to eat healthily – that’s something we are developing just now,” says Marina. “With the changes we have made, they should slowly get used to the difference.”

Members of the Nexalia team have already set up meetings with committees of older students to get feedback on the changes. “The students let it be known that they wanted to understand the changes and be informed of them, so we explained, for example, why we took away the deep fried options,” says Marina. “We are now waiting to get their opinions from a questionnaire we have sent out which will help is to make the menu more attractive to them while keeping it healthy. In the meetings, we discuss what dishes are not going down well and those that are and also other aspects of their lunch experience.”

The environment has been found by PReME, the official body in Catalonia for the revision of school meals, to influence how well children eat. In a study carried out in 2017, they found that primary pupils were not keen on noise or food served in prison-style trays and responded positively to a family atmosphere.

 

Heather Galloway