With Britain set to become the diabetes and child obesity capital of Europe, schools – and the local authorities that control their food budgets – can use the experience and perspective of business to help tackle problems, says columnist Iqbal Wahhab
A few years back I was a trustee of the Mayor’s Fund for London, a project led by business folk to look at new ways of solving the many problems facing the city’s youngsters. One day we visited a school in Islington, where a staggering 70 per cent of the children arrived unfed each morning, severely affecting their ability to learn.
We helped fund a programme where the school could pay for kids to start the day with something wholesome and nutritious. I felt slightly uneasy about this seemingly worthwhile endeavour and was tipped over the edge when a fellow visitor, a successful property developer, wrote the initiative a personal cheque for £10,000 on top of the £150,000 he had already committed from his company.
I aired my concerns aloud to the group and the school’s head teacher. “By paying for these breakfasts,” I asked, “aren’t we absolving these kids’ parents of their responsibility to feed their children? Who’s talking to the parents about their need to step up rather than asking businesspeople to pay up for a well-intentioned initiative?” I was lectured by a banker, who replied: “We don’t have the luxury of time to ask those questions. These kids need feeding.” For an example of the short-termism of financial investors, you need look no further.
There is clearly a need for businesses to use our fresh perspectives as much as our money to help create a generation of educated and healthy consumers and employees. You may remember Michelle Obama visiting an East End school primarily comprising British Bangladeshi girls. When I visited, to rather less media frenzy, an investment bank was running a session on personal finance. All the girls lived in council or rented accommodation. While about two-thirds of pupils go on to university, the notion of a mortgage was alien to them. The thrill of watching both the giving and receiving of this thought remains with me as a great example of where business can sensibly make a huge difference to the lives of schoolchildren.
Jamie Oliver has done a fantastic job of highlighting the appalling food served in schools. The creators of Leon produced a brilliant report for government after visiting educational establishments across the country. Did you know, for example, that parents spend £1bn a year on packed lunches for kids, yet only one per cent have the nutritional value needed to get through the day? Think crisps and chocolate bars and you won’t be far wrong. We need to break this cycle.
With Britain set to become the diabetes and child obesity capital of Europe, schools, and the local authorities that control their food budgets, can definitely use the experience and perspective of business to help tackle problems.
We have begun working with another East End school. One day I hosted some children for breakfast at Roast and took them round Borough Market to show them what real food looks like. Our chef Stuart has taught them how to make omelettes. Many schools are enabling kids to make their own breakfasts, surely a more sustainable intervention than random acts of kindness.
So while Stuart opens kids’ eyes to their ability to cook (healthily) for themselves, I struck up a conversation with the council about not seeing school catering budgets in isolation from other costs – those of perpetuating inequalities for the hard-off, creating a generation of malnourished children physically ill-equipped for a competitive place in society, dependent on fast food for their main meal of the day.
Set against a backdrop of increasing cuts to council budgets, businesses can step up and use our day-to-day internal rigour and apply that to domains in dire need of a new direction.
Iqbal Wahhab OBE is the founder of Roast. You can tweet him @IqbalWahhab