The Soil Association: A campaign for improved school meals, Food for Life

In how campaigns work it states:

Campaigning should be the structured expression of passion. A campaign works by one person or group infecting others with their enthusiasm and belief in a cause, (or service or a product) thereby tilting the balance of influences in its favour. Therefore, always campaign for something, even if your driving motive is to oppose something else.

Notice first, the name, Food for Life. This is a campaign against serving junk food to kids in school, it is driven by serious behavioral and medical issues, but when it came to naming its campaign the Soil Association very correctly opted for a positive framing. The very positive framing of the campaign sums up its entire ambition, while quietly alluding to the crucial fact that the food a child consumes will have a life long effect. The positive framing of the campaign makes it far easier for influential audiences and authorities to engage with it.

The Soil Association's Food for Life campaign is also a fine example of a structured expression of passion the passion in this case being initially supplied by a small number of pioneering individuals and innovative Local Councils who had realised that the absence of the provision of nutritionally beneficial school meals was seriously impacting child health, behaviour in school and educational attainment..

The nutritional value of school meals had been in decline since the 1980s with central government no longer setting adequate standards which school meal provision had to reach and local authorities under no obligation to provide fixed price meals of specified quality to every child. Across the country, but most noticeably in poorer areas, children were clearly suffering on a diet of high sugar, high salt, high fat, all coming from highly processed foods.

Food for Life began in 2002 as a pilot project to use the school meal as a vehicle to produce a vibrant food culture in schools and their wider communities. The vision, first created by Jeanette Orrey, then school cook at St Peter's Primary, East Bridgford, Nottinghamshire and her Head Teacher David Maddison, was for children to eat healthy and delicious home cooked food in a calm and sociable dining environment. The produce sourced was of good quality from local and organic producers. Catering staff were valued as a key part of the school. Links were built into the school's curriculum to ensure that during their primary school years, the children would develop a deep understanding of good food (including where it comes from), sufficient to influence their choices as they move into secondary school.

Very often, campaigners focus more or less exclusively on the campaign problem and its related moral imperative - this should not be happening and therefore must be stopped - and they neglect the importance of developing a workable solution to the problem they want to address. But for change to happen, two things, need to be present. The first is the moral imperative, the need for change, but the second is the practical solution, which illustrates the means of change. The best campaigns use the solution, the what should and could be happening, to attack the problem.

This is precisely how the Soil Association went about reframing or changing the political perception of what a school meal was. They changed it from being a near irrelevance into a means for delivering on a number of policy objectives: namely how to address the long term health and intellectual prospects of a generation of children gorging on processed foods, how to improve concentration levels and behaviour in schools and how to encourage sustainable patterns of public sector food purchasing. The Food for Life model delivered an elegant solution to each of these issues. With this behind it, the Soil Association could then move into a position where it could mount a powerful political campaign to secure elevated nutrition standards for all school meals provided in State Schools and increased investment in school meals from Central Government.

The Soil Association also connected their campaign to other major social drivers for change, (see change) namely expert opinion emerging from the British Medical Association and other academic sources that poor childhood nutrition was threatening the long term health of the nation; the Soil Association also connected their campaign to the sustainability agenda, observing that what EU citizens choose to eat and how that food is produced has more impact on climate change than any other aspect of daily life. School meal provision makes up 20% of the total UK public sector expenditure of 1.8billion on food procurement, if this expenditure could be focussed on the procurement of more seasonal, local and organic foods then substantial benefits to both health and the environment could be delivered.

The Soil Association Food for Life Report 2003 achieved significant media cover and launched a national debate on the deplorable standards of school meals. The report set the context and provided a backdrop for UK celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, to feature the issue in a series of national TV programmes, which were based on the Food for Life model. Behind this high profile media campaign the Soil Association began to lobby Ministers and Civil Servants, while at the same time empowering schools and parents throughout the country to break out of the status quo and begin to make changes to their own school meal regimes. Food for Life action packs, a help line and school visits provided vital support to visionary school Heads and anxious parents to take action on their own behalf, action which included in one instance, parents raiding their own school kitchen to discover banned imported chicken in a freezer.

Through these activities the Soil Association provided an almost irresistible backdrop to their own direct advocacy to Government. This was crucial to the campaign. The campaign was progressing along three paths simultaneously, and benefiting from the synergies that could be developed out of this multi layered approach. See route mapping . The media front and the direct action tracks provided essential support to the lobby/advocacy track. The campaign had achieved significance and had amassed sufficient power to ensure that its lobbying of Ministers and Policy Advisors could not be ignored or side stepped. See power. See also significance.

Ministers began to yield to the campaign by first accepting the principles advocated by Food for Life, but substantive action by them had to await a brilliant fusion of the campaigning tracks when dissatisfied children and teachers directly lobbied Ministers and chef Jamie Oliver presented a 270,000 petition direct to Prime Minister Tony Blair. The campaign continues. Having secured sweeping changes to nutritional standards, food purchasing policies and access to cooked school meals, plus substantial increases in funding for school meals.

In 2006, the Soil Association teamed up with the Focus on Food Campaign, Garden Organic and the Health Education Trust to form the new Food for Life Partnership and were awarded a 16.9M grant from the Big Lottery Fund, to transform food culture in schools and communities across England.

All schools in England can enroll on the Food for Life Partnership Mark, an action framework and award scheme to help schools and their communities make changes and be recognised for their achievements. Food for Life Partnership schools not only take steps towards serving fresh, local and organic school meals, but champion good food culture through practical food education such as cooking and growing activities and links to local organic farms.

Visit the Food for Life Partnership website at to find out more.