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Why I Spent Years Eating Jacket Potatoes and Plain Pasta

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It should be easy to eat healthy — but it really, really isn’t. School should be a place where every pupil has easy access to healthy, nutritious food that sets them up for class and helps them reach their full potential. It is also the one place where we could make absolutely sure that all children get a decent meal, no matter where they’re from.

But sadly, for me at least, this wasn’t the reality of my school food experience. I’m currently in Year 13 and have been in the same school through secondary school to sixth form which has enabled me to see some changes and get a really good understanding of the food my school offers. I’m also on free school meals which gives me additional insights. My experiences with school food were definitely a factor in why I decided to join Bite Back, making me passionate for the provision of healthy food for all young people.

Throughout my time at school I was actually able to see a transition to slightly healthier food served in the canteens but for years my personal experience was quite shocking. 

When I was younger I was confronted with poor quality meals, small portion sizes and a lack of options — especially healthy ones. Certain dietary requirements were not catered for. In primary school, no halal meat was offered, resulting in me eating jacket potatoes almost every day! In secondary school I developed lactose intolerance and found myself facing various options —all of which contained dairy or were extremely unappealing. 

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Sauce cost extra, which I couldn’t always afford, so I ate plain pasta for almost every lunch for three years, or decided to go completely without as many of my friends did.
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Anisah, National Youth Board Member

I was called a picky eater, but really — I just had my options taken away. The choice was made for me. I didn’t like the plain pasta. I didn't want it. Sometimes I would have the cheesy sauce just to have some variation and some flavour despite suffering the consequences later. 

My experiences have drastically changed my relationship with food. To this day I can’t eat a jacket potato or plain pasta and I am very careful about trying new options. I am still called a “picky eater”.

Being a free school meal student further restricted my options. Often I couldn’t get a drink as I couldn’t afford it. Free water was available, but the water fountains were old and unappealing. I am so glad my school has now upgraded these to new water bottle filling stations. As I grew older the small portion sizes also started to become much more of a problem and I realised how vital a good portion was. For years I thought this was a normal school food experience and didn’t realise that others had a radically different one.

Once leadership at our school changed, we thankfully started implementing some measures to improve school food. There were more healthy options, the number of junk food options was reduced and portion sizes increased. When there were only junk food options students obviously wanted them, but when they had more variety they often opted for the healthier option — especially when all options were made to look appealing and appetising. We realised healthy food didn’t mean only eating salad, but that there were many ways to eat healthily. My days of plain pasta were finally over. But if it hadn’t been for those changes I would have had to eat plain pasta until Year 13.

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Accessibility is also a huge issue. Not everyone always gets to have a school lunch. I am now allowed to go outside the school to buy lunch but I am confronted with a flood of junk food options, so I’ve moved back to eating school food.
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Anisah, National Youth Board Member

But, being in Year 13, I don’t have much time to eat and the environment for eating isn’t amazing either. Food options aren’t always presented in the most appealing way, leading students to just skip school food or opt for one of the junk food options as older students often do. By the time my year gets to lunch there is often none left and then you need to opt for quick grab-and-go options, with no healthy options available. Despite being allowed to go outside, many students do opt for school food as they do want something healthier but they are often let down by what’s available.

While my school food has improved, more can still be done. There is often a rota of the same food being on offer every week, so more variety would be great. And while portion sizes have increased they could still be larger. Most importantly, the lunchtime experience needs to become better. Let us eat in different places, make school lunches fun, and stop it feeling like a chore!

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From my experience, school food is an absolute postcode lottery and depending on where you live and current management your school food may be better or worse.
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Anisah, National Youth Board Member

Schools that don’t follow the school food standards because of funding issues or a lack of willingness see no consequences, which means it is incredibly difficult to enact change. We need to make sure the Government enforces school food standards to ensure the school meal experience is fair for everyone, including those on free school meals.

This is my school food story — what’s yours?

Meet the Activist!

Anisah is an activist who is aspiring to be a doctor. She has already done a lot of campaigning on issues that matter to her such as the broken food system. Anisah is the founder of Eleos, a mental health app for young people that includes an AI Powered Assistant, which she is currently developing in partnership with a local NHS Trust. Within her own local community, Anisah has been involved in steering the creation of a successful youth hub that aims to equip young people with the knowledge and resources to create their own social action projects and campaigns.

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