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.

This grant is funded by the UK Prevention Research Partnership (UKPRP) which is administered by the Medical Research Council on behalf of the UKPRP's 12 funding partners: British Heart Foundation; Cancer Research UK; Chief Scientist Office of the Scottish Government Health and Social Care Directorates; Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council; Economic and Social Research Council; Health and Social Care Research and Development Division, Welsh Government; Health and Social Care Public Health Agency, Northern Ireland; Medical Research Council; Natural Environment Research Council; National Institute for Health Research; The Health Foundation; The Wellcome Trust.

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.
 
Description All Party Parliamentary Group on School Food meeting 23 January 2020 attended by GENIUS Network Co-I Dr Charlotte Evans to present her work on Pack Lunches
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
 
Description All Party Parliamentary Group on School Food meeting 9 June 2020 attended by GENIUS Network Co-I Dr Suzanne Spence
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
 
Description Participation in a Federation of European Nutrition Societies Working Group "Improved Standards in the Science of Nutrition"
Geographic Reach Europe 
Policy Influence Type Membership of a guideline committee
 
Description School Food Plan Alliance meeting 23 July 2020 Introduction to The GENIUS Network presented by Co-I Dr Suzanne Spence
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
 
Description The GENIUS School Food Network response to the Northern Ireland Consultation - draft update to nutritional standards for school food.
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
 
Description Department for the Economy PhD studentship - Hayley Sharp {JW}
Amount £65,000 (GBP)
Organisation Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2019 
End 08/2022
 
Description Public Health Intervention Development scheme
Amount £187,252 (GBP)
Funding ID MR/V003860/1 
Organisation Medical Research Council (MRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2020 
End 02/2022
 
Description Social Media presence established for The GENIUS School Food Network: Twitter handle @GENIUS 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact This has been a very effective way of promoting the network's presence in the school food community, by linking with and supporting events being held within the UK, such as webinars held by the Lead Association for Caterers in Education (LACA) or the Association for the Study of Obesity series of webinars, or supporting campaigns such as Marcus Rashford's call for the extension of free school meals during half term. Promotion of events has extended beyond the UK, for example, the American Society for Nutrition live online event which replaced their annual conference in June. We have been able to grow the network membership by tweeting about network activities such as the UKSBM webinar. The social media presence of GENIUS will continue to grow with the network expanding its reach and influence.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description The GENIUS Network NI Online Session with Stakeholders: School food procurement/provision 19th October 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact As part of a range of network activities, A regional online sessions focused on school food procurement NI TOOK PLACE IN October 2020.
Attendees were : Ms Judith Hanvey, Regional food in schools co-ordinator NI, Ms Linda Best, Education Authority EA senior catering manager, Prof Jayne Woodside QUB, Prof Michelle McKinley QUB, Dr Danielle McCarthy QUB and Dr Tess Capper QUB.
The aim of the online session is to:
1) To introduce the GENIUS network to stakeholders
2) To understand the current situation (e.g. processes, timescales, key assessment criteria for awarding contracts etc.) regarding school food procurement and provision in the different UK regions
3) To understand current models of good practice in terms of effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability
4) To understand the metrics of (3) above - e.g. uptake rates, diet quality, sustainability (e.g. reduced food miles; increased use of locally sourced products), cost efficiency and food waste
5) To explore where in the chain it may be possible to achieve savings, improve quality or make efficiencies
6) To understand how it may be possible to increase school meal uptake, particularly uptake of free school meals and/or to improve meal quality with minimal financial impact (therefore contributing to a reduction in socioeconomic inequalities)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description The GENIUS School Food Network website, 9th June 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact The GENIUS School Food Network website is used to support the work and activities of the network and the school food community and includes:
Introduction the network
Meet the team
Project partners
News and Events
Funding opportunities offered by the network
Join the network
Contact the network
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL http://geniusschoolfoodnetwork.com
 
Description The UKSBM ASM SIG Symposium Theme 'Establishing positive food behaviours in children' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact The Children's Lifestyle Behaviours, Wellbeing and Health Special Interest Group held a Symposium at the UKSBM 16th Annual Scientific Meeting. The theme was 'Establishing positive food behaviours in children'. There were three invited speakers:
Prof Marion Hetherington, School of Psychology, University of Leeds. Presentation title: Experiential Learning in Acquiring Food Preferences in Early Life.
Camilla McHugh, Research Fellow Children's Health and Maternity, University of Exeter. Presentation title: Creating the conditions for healthy food cultures in secondary schools; a co-created health promoting school process.
Dr Anna Coates, Postgraduate Research Assistant, Psychological Sciences, University of Liverpool. Presentation title: The impact of social media influencer promotion of foods on children's healthy food choices and consumption.
The was a questions and answers session after each speaker and again at the end of the session.
The UKSBM Annual Scientific meeting had approx. 180 registered attendees and delegates could have access to all recordings from the event.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description UK Society for Behavioural Medicine Special Interest Group 'Children's lifestyle behaviours, wellbeing and health' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact The Special Interest Group (SIG) will focus on behavioural medicine research exploring the complex relationship between children's lifestyle behaviours, wellbeing and health. It will encompass the broader factors that influence children's social, emotional and cognitive development, and the interventions that can improve them, including individual-level, population-level and multi-level interventions such as parenting support, emotional health and wellbeing programmes, access to green space, food environment, and opportunities to be active. Settings will include both at school and at home.
This SIG offers the unique opportunity to connect the ongoing work of two UKPRP funded networks and one consortium. The GENIUS network aims to build a more health-promoting food and nutrition system in UK schools, while the MatCHNet network is harnessing cross-country administrative data to evaluate national policy impacts on maternal, infant and child health and health inequalities. The ActEarly consortium aims to improve the life chances of children by focusing on improving the environments that influence their health. The PIs of the GENIUS and MatCHNet networks and a number of members of the ActEarly consortium have expressed their interest in this group (see list of members below), with the GENIUS PI proposed as Chair. To link these major relevant initiatives via the SIG will add much value to their independent activity, facilitating early interaction and cross-fertilisation of ideas which is not yet supported by UKPRP funders. Such interaction will be akin to the NPRI networking historically encouraged via the UKSBM annual meetings.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description UKSBM SIG Webinar 'Current issues in school food' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact The UKSBM SIG hosted its first webinar entitled 'Current Issues in School Food', which had 119 attendees (coming from both academic and non-academic backgrounds) registered to hear Co-I Dr Charlotte Evans, University of Leeds, present her work on Packed Lunches (including 'A repeated cross-sectional survey assessing changes in diet and nutrient quality of English primary school children's packed lunches between 2006 and 2016' and 'The effectiveness of lunchbox interventions on improving the foods and beverages packed and consumed by children at centre-based care or school: a systematic review and meta-analysis'). Co-I Dr Laura Johnston, University of Bristol, discussed her recent Blog on 'Lockdown Lunches, are packed lunches still the norm or are family meals now the dish of the day?'. The SIG management group had decided that a part of the webinar programme should facilitate capacity building and allow submissions from Early Career Researchers and the two successful submissions came from network members, Ms Rhona Duff, University of Birmingham, who presented 'An exploration of adolescents' dietary intake: comparison of food and nutrient intake between pupils purchasing food at school vs. elsewhere during the school day and over a 24 hour period' and Dr Tess Capper, Queen's University Belfast who presented her work on 'Successful dietary interventions in the secondary school setting: A systematic review of systematic reviews'.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020