Opportunities for intervention and innovation in the UK School Food System: the GENIUS (Generating Excellent Nutrition In UK Schools) network

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University of Belfast
Department Name: Centre for Public Health

Abstract

Food provided in schools has a major influence on the quality of children's diets and has the potential to reduce inequalities in dietary intake between children according to their social or economic background. The quality of diet in childhood has been shown to impact on future development, educational achievement, health and well-being outcomes, and also influences diet in adulthood, as well as disease risk (e.g. diabetes, heart disease) in later life. There are differences in how schools arrange their food provision and what they serve, between schools and between countries in the UK, and this is not well understood. We propose a UK school food network (GENIUS), considering the food system across the preschool, primary and secondary schools, and including all school food provision, both within and outside the canteen. The aim of this network will be to work towards a more health-promoting food and nutrition system in UK schools. Objectives include the development of a network of academics and non-academics across the UK actively researching and influencing school food, the use of a range of novel research methods to understand the current UK school food system, and appreciate its complexities, and examination of similarities and differences and areas of best practice between the four nations of the UK. Finally, the network will explore opportunities for interventions that will positively impact on school food, improve the diet quality of children at school and reduce inequalities. The network will bring together researchers from a range of backgrounds including nutrition, epidemiology, public health, sensory science, health economics, health informatics, health psychology, education, planning and policy. Inclusion of project partners who are actively involved in the provision of school food from across the UK, including from local government, catering providers, pupils and parents, will make sure the work of the network is immediately useful and, together, this team of academics and non-academics will ensure the-development of research priorities and questions that are relevant in the school setting. This network will use a combination of workshops, working groups and funding of small projects to map the school food system and work together to develop research questions. Understanding the current food system and building this network of those interested in and working in school food will advance research and policy around the food environment in schools. Findings will be presented widely in both the academic and non-academic setting to make sure the findings have an impact. Funding applications will be developed based on the initial co-production of research questions and priority areas during network activities, working in partnership with policy makers and schools, and will sustain the network in the longer term.

Technical Summary

School food has a major influence on children's diet quality and has the potential to reduce diet inequalities and reduction of non-communicable disease risk in the long-term. We propose a UK school food system network, considering the food system across the preschool, primary and secondary settings, and including all school food provision. The overarching aim is to build a community to work towards a more health promoting food and nutrition system in UK schools. Objectives include the development of a network of academics and non-academics across the UK actively researching and influencing the school food system, the use of a range of methodologies, including systems mapping and network analysis, to understand the current UK school food landscape, including similarities and differences and areas of best practice between the four nations of the UK, and, finally, the exploration of opportunities for population and system level interventions that will positively impact diet quality and inequalities. The network will bring together a team from a range of disciplines, while inclusion of non-academic users and other stakeholders, such as pupils and parents, will allow the co-development of research priorities and questions. This network will use a combination of workshops, working groups and pump-priming projects to explore the school food system, as well as creating a systems map of the UK school food system, and conducting network analysis of the current system and the newly established network. Understanding the current food system and building network expertise will advance research and policy around food in schools. Findings will be disseminated widely, building upon existing and new academic and non-academic networks. Funding applications will be developed based on these findings, working in partnership with policy makers and schools, to ensure maximum engagement and future sustainability of the network.

Planned Impact

The overarching aim of the GENIUS network is to develop a more health promoting food and nutrition system in UK schools which will contribute to improved population health, reduced inequalities and reduced future NCD risk.
In terms of the short-term impact, the network will build capacity across all sectors both regionally and UK-wide in this area, thus ensuring the academic and non-academic sector are equipped with the knowledge and skills to create better school food environments, for example, by pursuing activities ripe for innovation, undertaking intervention development/testing, and harnessing effective routes to influence policy. Part of this capacity building will include training of all network members in systems thinking, which will encourage a fresh approach to the school food system.
Increased understanding of the current UK-wide school food system, including commonalities, differences and areas of good practice, development of a systems map and co-production of research priorities will lead to research funding applications, which will be based on sound evidence and rigorous evaluation of the status quo.
The co-production of priorities for research and changes in practice will ensure the activities of the network are relevant for stakeholders and are, thus, more likely to result in meaningful and sustained changes in policy and practice.
In the medium and longer term, a community of practice that will embed the Health Promoting Schools ethos in the UK system will exist. This community of practice will have at its disposal a range of tools to support evaluation of its activities, including a core outcome set, which will potentially be of great impact in improving the quality and comparability of school food-based research. The network will bring a focus on implementation and sustainability and will effect an improvement in school food quality, normalise evidence-based healthy food practices within school settings and change school food culture and practice, ultimately creating healthier school food environments which are accessible to all, reducing socioeconomic diet-related inequalities, and, consequently reducing NCD risk.
The main beneficiaries are families with school-aged children, but school-based stakeholders (teachers, principals, catering staff), and non-school-based stakeholders, including policymakers, will all benefit.

Publications

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