No fewer than 20% of children in the EU live in a family at risk of poverty or social exclusion. That amounts to 18 million children in need. In Belgium, too, this situation all too often results in empty or unhealthy lunch boxes. This is worrying for at least three reasons: children should not have to go hungry or eat unhealthily; they should not learn on an empty stomach; and they should not develop unhealthy food habits that will last a lifetime. Therefore, the European Commission recommends to offer at least one healthy meal a day at school, at no cost to children in need (European Child Guarantee, 2021).
Rikolto aims to put that recommendation into practice, by ensuring a healthy and sustainable nutrition policy in all Flemish schools, both in the kitchen and in the classroom. This goal is as ambitious as it is crucial. In such an integrated policy, schools not only make healthy and sustainable food available for everyone, they also educate and sensitise children about healthy and sustainable food, and about their own role in the global food system.
At first glance, this might seem like an unsurmountable challenge for school teams, who already have a lot on their plate, with little time and few resources at hand. That is why Rikolto, together with the city of Leuven, launched a project call to support schools both financially and conceptually in developing good food policies. Leuven-based primary schools could submit a project proposal that had to last at least eight weeks, had to be accessible for every pupil without stigmatising anyone, and had to comply with the health guidelines of the Flemish Institute Gezond Leven (‘Healthy Living’). Six projects were earmarked and received access to a total subsidy of €12,000, provided by the city of Leuven. Though a small amount, this seed money was deemed crucial by the schools for the start-up of their projects. Most of the budget was used for purchasing equipment such as large fridges or ovens. In 2022, the six projects were developed, carried out and evaluated. Looking back, the results are inspiring.
Four of the six projects chose to offer soup, thus ensuring that all children ate vegetables on a regular basis in school. One school offered a daily fruit snack and the sixth school provides a daily breakfast buffet at the entrance to each classroom. These ‘breakfast bars’ stay open all day long, so children can also have a healthy snack during the day.
The food offerings are not only healthy, but also sustainable. Four schools use locally produced fruit and vegetables from local farmers and even from the pupils’ parents themselves. Besides environmental advantages, working with local producers also comes with educational opportunities. The farmers are often willing to invite the pupils on a school trip to their site, where they can learn about food production.
“You have to invest in the broader project, so pupils can also see how the soup is made and where food comes from. To do this, we organised a soup workshop with the farmer, where a class of Year six pupils made their own soup.”
Another way of eating sustainably is by tackling food waste. The breakfast bars are exclusively filled with food surpluses, provided once a week by social organisation Poverello. As the children are informed about the breakfast bars, they also learn about the importance of healthy food for concentration and energy during the school day. A win-win situation.
One of the project requirements was that all children had to have access to healthy food in a non-stigmatising way. Apart from the school with the breakfast bars (which uses free food surpluses), all schools turn to a solidarity mechanism like a social fund, the school’s working budget or a system in which parents could anonymously sponsor children from disadvantaged families.
“To me, the principle of solidarity is even more important than the health aspect; otherwise, only wealthy children will have access to healthy food. You simply can't separate these two aspects: it's about offering healthy food for everyone.”
Jan Leenaerts | Head Teacher of Sancta Maria Primary School
Some schools sought and found volunteers to help schools with the logistics, from delivering and cutting vegetables to bringing and presenting the healthy meals to the children. These volunteers require proper guidance, but can be effectively helpful. In this way, the school projects often turned into community projects.
Based on these six pilots in Leuven, Rikolto now aims to upscale good practices and lessons learnt. Through a second project call, at least 13 Leuven schools will also implement a good food initiative, and one new pilot will be devoted to hot meals. Additionally, a toolkit has been developed for Flemish schools and cities to learn from past experiences. Rikolto also facilitates cities to take up their role as drivers for change on a more permanent basis by installing school food councils, connecting all relevant partners within a city. Next to this bottom-up approach, Rikolto also looks for stakeholders and policymakers on a regional level, i.e. in Flanders, to inspire and encourage schools and local governments from the top down.
Through the European SchoolFood4Change project, Rikolto also aims to structurally implement a ‘Whole School Food Approach’ in schools, ensuring that students are also educated about food habits and the food system. This project aims to promote healthy and sustainable food habits among 600,000 schoolchildren and young people in 12 EU member states. Through SchoolFood4Change, we are expanding our impact beyond Belgian borders, but we are also learning good practices throughout Europe.
“The power of bringing school representatives together is that they energise each other. They go home with a suitcase full of ideas, contacts and energy to take the next steps."
Within the global GoodFood4Cities programme, almost every Rikolto region is working to make healthy and sustainable food widely accessible to school children. By exchanging our experiences in a two-monthly meeting, we are able to identify common challenges, such as the need for a healthy food environment around the school.
By enabling school teams, cities and relevant partners, good food at school can become the norm in Belgium and throughout Europe. That is why Rikolto is excited about its GoodFood@School projects, contributing to this change.
Editor: Heleen Verlinden - International Communications, Rikolto.