About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Improving the school meal system

I have one very vivid memory of school meals at primary school – Australian crunch and mint custard. It wouldn’t get close to the nutritional standards that we expect of our school meals nowadays - they were packed with sugar and I’m pretty sure the luminous green custard had never been near anything that actually resembled mint. It’s a great example of how, on International School Meals Day (ISMD), what we serve has changed over time.

And now, on the other side of school meals, as a parent, I weigh up all sorts of decisions about what my kids should eat during the day. What do they like? What’s most convenient for us? What’s the cost going to be? What’s the healthiest option?

The one thing that binds these two experiences together is just how little say I had or have in what actually ends up on the plate – over 30 years ago, you got what you were given (especially if your table got called up last). Today, there’s greater choice (for us, weekly via an online ordering platform) but the voice of parents and pupils in the design of those choices is often still missing.

Last year, the team in Wales mapped our school meals system – how it operates, who’s involved, when and for what purpose. We wanted to get a sense of where different decisions were being made and by whom so that we could intervene more effectively to find ways to increase take-up of school meals. The map confirmed just how little agency parents and pupils have.

It’s time to bring parents/carers and pupils into the system.

If we take a deeper look at the school meals system it quickly becomes clear that there are few, if any, feedback options that allow parents (and pupils) to genuinely input into the development of what young people eat at school. We believe, based on research that we’ve undertaken, that increasing parental engagement in school meals is likely to drive take-up, leading to health and economic benefits for those families.

But bringing people into the system has to be done with purpose, so what roles might parents and pupils play and how best could those roles be facilitated?

Eating together

My own experience of school meals colours the decisions I make for my children. I’m fortunate – I had pretty good school meals and there wasn’t often a day where the food was bad, or I disliked what was on offer. But that’s not the case for everyone and it’s important we make sure that parents are acting on information that’s current, not perceptions based on historic experience. One way we could bring parents in (literally) is by offering them the opportunity to taste the food – a key part of the process for Chefs in Schools and the system change that they facilitate through their programme.

Food production and preparation

The new curriculum in Wales gives schools the opportunity to shape lessons around themes and topics that matter to them. Using food as a theme for learning could provide a novel way to ensure that pupils are better engaged in what they’re eating, where it comes from and how it’s prepared. It’s already working outside of Wales – at Greenside Primary School in Hammersmith it’s a core part of how the school operates. The way food is at the heart of what they teach could act as a model for schools in Wales that now have the freedom to choose new ways of working.

Shaping standards and values

The most important role we could give parents and pupils is to put them at the heart of the decisions that shape what lands on plates at the end of our process. What should the nutritional standards be and how can we blend scientific and lived experience to define them? How should we balance the need for nutritional standards with views on sustainability or the importance of local produce versus the need for an efficient and manageable system?

And here we’re fortunate – there are plenty of new tools, methods and techniques that allow different groups of people to make their voices heard. Whether it’s All Our Ideas to help generate and then sort a range of possible solutions or using collective intelligence techniques that blend the power of people, data and technology to think about how we solve social challenges. How might we make better use of the large databases and data science expertise that Wales has access to – SAIL Databank or ADR for instance?

What matters most here is that the system is set up to listen and adapt to the things it’s hearing. Participation without subsequent action will only result in greater frustration and a breakdown in trust between participants and the system.

There are plenty of novel and creative ways that we can engage parents and pupils in school meals in meaningful and constructive roles. If we do this, we’d hope that we see an increase in take-up of food that’s on average likely to be more nutritious and less calorific than packed lunches, resulting in multiple benefits to parents and pupils, not least the cash savings that the universal free school meal rollout in Wales is aiming to achieve.


Rob Ashelford

Rob Ashelford

Rob Ashelford

Pennaeth Nesta Cymru / Head of Nesta Cymru

Rob is Head of Nesta Cymru - responsible for the delivery of Nesta's strategy in Wales.

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