School canteens, a space for transforming the food system

Il·lustració © Riki Blanco

The school canteen purportedly plays a major role in the diet of children and teenagers, and is also said to be a tool for learning and education. But there is still little talk of the school canteen as a space to transform today’s food system, as a driving force to foster local production and recover the Mediterranean diet.

Both public authorities and private organisations have recently begun discussing healthy and sustainable canteens. Although talking about them in these terms is positive, care must be taken to prevent them from becoming meaningless concepts and to ensure today’s food model is challenged. The school menu or canteen model must be established based on the right to food and food sovereignty.

The school canteen must be turned into a space committed to menus where fresh seasonal vegetables, whole grains and pulses characteristic of the Mediterranean diet take centre stage again, and animal protein is reduced to the recommended intake and frequency of consumption.

Quantitatively and qualitatively adequate food

The UN has recognised the right to adequate food as “The right to have regular, permanent and unrestricted access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensures a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear.” (United Nations, 2010). Therefore, governments and public authorities should prevent school canteens from being an object of speculation and should ensure that all children have guaranteed access to a healthy and sustainable diet, since the economic cost should not be an obstacle. Special care must be taken with children who live in vulnerable and precarious environments because the school canteen is probably the place where they eat the only hot and balanced meal of the day. To achieve the goal of healthy and sustainable meals, efforts must be made to ensure the food is organic, seasonal and locally produced, as well as to guarantee social justice throughout the food chain and that farmers are granted decision-making power and fair pay for food production.

Moreover, we must be aware – so as not to create expectations that cannot be met – that the viability of this model must be guaranteed, taking the following aspects into consideration: 1) the availability of the foods on the menu (capacity for local production, distribution and supply logistics), 2) sufficient kitchen staff to prepare meals, 3) the availability of an equipped kitchen to prepare the menu, and 4) the economic cost of the service.

A study carried out by BCN Smart Rural estimates that Catalonia has a 40% capacity for food self-sufficiency, whereas this figure corresponds to 10% in the province of Barcelona. In the case of school canteens, if all the schools in Barcelona were to decide to consume locally produced, organic and seasonal food, it would undoubtedly be an unrealistic commitment, especially as regards neglected foodstuffs such as pulses. To this end, other dynamics in terms of food logistics and distribution are needed. This should not be an excuse for doing nothing. On the contrary, it may be an incentive to foster local production and to galvanise an agricultural strategy subject to the territory’s needs.

In Catalonia, roughly 330,000 children stay for lunch in the school canteen. This implies a consumption of 7,300 tonnes of vegetables per school year, but organic production throughout Catalonia is found to only amount to 4,800 tonnes (according to official figures for 2019). And if we consider pulses, the volume falls short even more: school consumption could correspond to 1,300 tonnes, but total production in Catalonia (conventional and organic) does not reach 754 tonnes. This shows that not only must schools commit to a canteen that serves local and organic produce, but that committing to the recovery of agriculture is also a priority. The question that must be asked is why the authorities have not figured this out and have not implemented strategies to make agricultural production and consumption more accessible to schools.

Political commitment

It is not only a question of guaranteeing local agricultural production or changing the structure of school canteen menus, but also, and above all, of fostering changes in the structure and running of public authorities to ensure a scenario conducive to public procurement. This calls for political commitment and equipping the authorities with resources to guarantee implementation in a technical manner.

Currently, the Government of Catalonia’s Department of Education has set the maximum price for the provision of the canteen service in public schools at €6.33 per menu per day. This price includes food purchasing, kitchen and canteen staff, running costs, kitchen equipment, taxes, etc. If we wish to guarantee a school meal that is committed to local, seasonal, organic food and that pays a fair price to producers, at least €1.50 of that amount must be allocated to food purchasing. It must be borne in mind that this price is very low and it must be remembered that, apart from children with school canteen grants, families incur the total cost of the service. Perhaps it would be time to ask the Catalan authorities to increase this price, to guarantee a quality service, and to assume part of the cost, as the authorities in other autonomous communities do.

It is now up to public and private institutions to extend the model to all schools in communities; for instance, creating favourable conditions to commit to agriculture, recognising and giving impetus to the professionalisation of cooking in local communities and the promotion of a healthy diet in schools. In this regard, authorities are key since they can modify public procurement and tendering procedures for supplies or services related to collective catering, such as school canteens. The public procurement of food is one of the most effective tools for driving changes in Catalonia’s socioeconomic and environmental landscape, in its different areas of action.

In Barcelona we must challenge the City Council, which is currently reviewing the conditions and criteria that govern the contracting of municipal food services (pre-school canteens, soup kitchens, nursing homes, etc.). Until now, the incorporation of organic food has been requested. But it is a good time to ask that the food be seasonal and locally produced. Sufficient resources must also be guaranteed so that food is bought at fair prices and that a real commitment to transformative nutrition is undertaken in soup kitchens, nursing homes or pre-schools. We also have to put pressure on the Department of Education so that, in coordination with the Department for Climate Action, Food and Rural Affairs, it develops and approves strategies and policies for agricultural production and public procurement that make healthy and sustainable food possible in schools.

Sustainable school canteens can be driving forces to boost territories’ agro-ecological production and to help them become a reliable short marketing circuit. But, this calls for the creation of synergies and links between all parts of this chain, which spans from the fields to schools. This year, Barcelona is the World Capital of Sustainable Food and is committed to taking on a strategic role in the development of sustainable food systems. It is time to determine whether there is political will to transform the city’s food model.

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