Better eating, better learning: a new context for school food

Refreshed guidance to support schools and all stakeholders to work in partnership to make improvements in school food and food education.

Section 7 Sustainability through Food

THE CHALLENGE: To find practical ways to supply the school meal service with healthy, fresh, seasonal, and sustainably grown food. To use school food as an entry point for young people to learn about the impact of food choices on individual health and the environment, and to understand their role in the conservation of natural resources, food waste and recycling.

Did you know … every year in the UK about 15 million tonnes of food is thrown away, and each person throws away an average of 120kg of food?

Why this matters

Local authorities working with their community planning partners are in a position to make a significant contribution to support Scotland's transition to a sustainable food system. Sustainable food is about being creative to secure the best value for money while simultaneously pursuing Scotland's wider social, economic and environmental needs. This is crucial because expenditure on school food has, by giving all young people access to good nutrition, the potential to unlock benefits for community wellbeing. This can impact on health and social inequality, as well as stimulate employment and training opportunities in all parts of Scotland.

Food is an excellent topic for schools to use to develop understanding about sustainability, lending itself well to a whole school approach across the curriculum. Working with the catering service, school food can be used to explore a range of issues around sustainability, and empower children and young people to then share their learning with the wider community.

Food, from production through to consumption and waste, is a significant source of the greenhouse gases in Scotland and the EU that are the cause of global warming. The types of raw materials used to produce food have a significant impact not only on the total climate emissions but also on biodiversity. As food can differ widely in terms of production methods and climatic impact, local authorities have great potential to reduce harm to the environment through the school food procurement decisions they take.

By collaborating early in the tender process, caterers and procurement specialists can put in place affordable contracts which meet the nutritional requirements for school food while maximising the contribution school food expenditure makes to a thriving, Scottish food and drink industry.

Did you know … a 5% reduction in food waste by the end of 2015 has the potential to save the UK hospitality and food service sector £250 million over two years?

Key Points

Understanding sustainable food

Sustainable food means food that, through its production, processing, distribution and consumption, does not harm people or the environment but provides a range of benefits such as:

  • providing social benefits, such as good quality, safe food, good nutrition, and educational opportunities;
  • protecting the diversity of both plants and animals, and avoid damaging natural resources and contributing to climate change; and
  • contributing to thriving local economies and sustainable livelihoods in Scotland and in the case of imported products, in producer countries.

In practice this focuses on three areas of sustainable procurement:

  • foods produced to higher sustainability standards - covering issues such as higher environmental standards, fish from sustainable sources, in-season fresh food, [34] animal welfare and ethical trading considerations;
  • foods procured and served to higher nutritional standards - to reduce salt, saturated fat and sugar and increase consumption of lean meat, fibre, fish and fruit and vegetables; and
  • catering services operating to higher sustainability standards for equipment, waste and energy management.

Sustainable fish and meat produce have third party assurances attached to them such as MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) or QMS (Quality Meat Scotland) for higher standards. The term 'in-season food' is produce that is outdoor-grown or produced during the natural growing or production period for the country or region where it is produced, whether from Scotland, UK or overseas. All food, whether sourced from Scotland or other countries, should always be sourced sustainably and fairly.

Did you know … schools and further and higher education establishments account for 13% of the total waste in the UK hospitality and food service sector?

Learning for Sustainability, the report of the One Planet Schools Working Group, defined Learning for Sustainability as a whole school approach that enables the school and its wider community to build the values, attitudes, knowledge, skills and confidence needed to develop practices and take decisions which are compatible with a sustainable and equitable society.

Further information can be accessed here:

Local authorities, caterers and procurement specialists can make change happen

The challenge for the caterer providing food in schools is to work with businesses to demand new, healthy, resource efficient types of products and delivery arrangements. Creating the demand for these products is an opportunity not a barrier for local authority caterers. This requires more innovative catering menus and procurement which use the flexibility in procurement legislation to help school food secure social, economic and environmental wins for the relevant area. It requires tangible action and ambition from local authorities through caterers and innovative procurement officers who understand the scale of change needed and how to achieve this.

How legislation and policy support sustainable school food

The Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) (Scotland) Act 2007 places a duty on education authorities, and managers of grant aided schools, to 'have regard to any guidance issued by the Scottish Ministers on the application of the principles of sustainable development when providing food or drink or catering services in schools'.

Did you know … that during the next 40 years the world's population is projected to reach more than nine billion people? Demand for food is expected to increase by 60%.

Recognising the role that public sector catering can play in promoting sustainable development, the Scottish Government produced guidance in Catering for Change - Buying food sustainably in the public sector. [35]

The Guidance explains the opportunity to work with legislation:

  • to raise production and process standards;
  • increase tenders from small and local producers and increase capacity of small and local suppliers;
  • increase consumption of healthy and nutritious food; and
  • reduce adverse environmental impacts of production and supply.

The Scottish Model of Procurement is an integral part of policy and service delivery. It is a simple concept - business friendly and socially responsible - which focusses on outcomes not outputs, and uses the power of public spend to deliver genuine public value beyond simply cost/quality in purchasing. At its heart is the concept of value for money through procurement whereby public authorities are expected, through an informed balance between cost, quality and sustainability, to procure food and catering services that:

  • contribute towards the achievement of the Scottish Dietary Goals and health improvement strategies; [36]
  • create the conditions to support and encourage a thriving and competitive food industry;
  • promote high standards of food safety, traceability, authenticity, higher animal welfare standards, provenance and quality; and
  • deliver positive environmental outcomes throughout the lifecycle of the product or service.

Did you know … that it is estimated that 31% of the EU's greenhouse gas emissions were associated with the food system?


Procurement Regulation is a barrier to buying sustainable food

Myth Buster

Public bodies have significant opportunities and flexibility to influence sustainability through their food contracts. For example local authorities are able to:

  • Use the flexibility in procurement regulations relating to the performance of a public contract to make clear that the conditions shall, in particular concern, social, economic and environmental considerations by clearly indicating this in the contract notice or contract documents;
  • Specify produce that has Protected Designated Origin ( PDO) or Protected Geographical Indication ( PDI) or equivalent status including Scotch beef and Scotch lamb;
  • Specify free range and organic food;
  • Specify requirements based on menu plans that are based on freshness, high nutritional value using food in-season and flexible and frequent delivery times;
  • Base specifications on nutritional content and use technical specifications;
  • Specify non- GM, take account of the use of carbon based fuel, and consider the impact of palm oil and phosphorous based fertilisers;
  • Include fair and ethically traded options;
  • Work with the successful supplier on a voluntary basis once the contract is awarded to increase the quantity of local produce supplied;
  • Require the supplier to use reusable containers, provide a take back service and deliver in bulk units, and/or recyclable packaging;
  • Direct suppliers to minimise waste packaging and to provide flexible and frequent delivery schedules and consider all stages of the life-cycle including sourcing, manufacturing and production, transportation, service delivery, reuse, recycling and disposal; and
  • Divide contracts into small product lots and geographic areas to encourage the active participation of local businesses where it is proportionate to do so.

Did you know … that the Fairtrade Foundation can help your school become a Fairtrade School? See

There are increasing numbers of good examples of how food is being sustainably purchased and showcased on menus. These examples show that local authorities are able to prioritise sustainable food which can then lead to changing patterns of thinking and eating in schools and communities and help create new sustainable supply chains.

The UK Guidance on Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering Services [37] is a helpful resource.

How well does food provision throughout the school reflect the aims of sustainability?

Sustainable School Meals in Practice

A growing number of Councils have achieved independent endorsement that the food they serve uses fresh ingredients that meet high standards of provenance and traceability, providing reassurance to teachers, parents and young people that their school meals are freshly prepared using environmentally-sustainable and seasonal ingredients. They have been able to demonstrate sustainable processes for food they buy through local and national contracts. The Soil Association's Food for Life Catering Mark criteria awards caterers at bronze, silver and gold levels. At bronze level, 75 percent of dishes must be freshly prepared and all meat must meet Scottish/ UK farm-assured standards. Silver and gold awards recognise the use of: sustainable food, such as Marine Stewardship Certified Fish; ethical food, such as higher animal welfare and fair-trade products; local food; and organic ingredients.

To what extent is sustainability taken into account, for example through waste and energy management, within kitchen and dining area practices?

Did you know … that Scottish fishermen land more than 60% of the UK's seafood and the top five species are mackerel, prawns, haddock, cod and monkfish?

Learning opportunities from sustainable practices

'The fact that pupils are actively involved in the whole process of preparing the land, planting the seeds, caring for the crops, harvesting and finally preparing and eating them, undeniably instils in them appreciation of healthy food and the natural growth cycle, including the importance of compost, mini beasts, sun and rain. As this is a regular experience throughout their school days, education for sustainability is part of their growing up and we might see a new generation of people with a deep sense of appreciation and responsibility for our planet.'

Primary School Teacher

School food can be a way to help children and young people learn about sustainability. To begin with, the food purchased for schools needs to be an exemplar for socially and environmentally responsible menus which demonstrate a whole school approach to health promotion and sustainability. Practical and classroom teaching, in the school, community or further afield, can build understanding around what is produced and grown locally and in Scotland. Planned opportunities such as those provided by Eco-Schools, [38] the Royal Highland Education Trust ( RHET) [39] or the Dumfries House Food Education Programme [40] allow children to explore a range of sustainability issues. In addition children can learn about sustainability through the practices schools employ such as growing projects in school, and waste management projects in the school kitchen and dining room.

'Our school gardens have been developed with lottery money. We have a sustainable vegetable garden and fruit trees and bushes and broad bean days and tattie days are part of our normal school year. The cooks are happy to support the school and bake our home grown vegetables for the children to taste - taster days are always popular with the children and parents. We have learnt so much trying to grow vegetables and fruit in our sustainable garden, including the influence of bad weather on crops.'

Primary School Headteacher

How effectively does the school promote the social, educational and nutritional benefits of school food across the school and school community?

The priority to reduce waste

Management of Food Waste is now a national and international priority in Scotland. Zero Waste Scotland is involved in a range of projects aimed at reducing food and related packaging waste. [41]

Zero Waste Scotland has developed the Scottish Carbon Metric with the Scottish Government which is designed to measure and reduce the whole life carbon impact of waste in Scotland that can be used by local authorities. The Carbon Metric includes the impacts from production, as well as disposal.

Resource Efficient Scotland [42] helps organisations including local authorities and schools to save energy, water and money, increase recycling and use fewer resources, including cutting food waste. It does that through technical support, sharing best practice and guidance on communications, and showing organisations where to get funding to help.


Email: Lynne Carter,

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