Making school meals more sustainable: case study

Find out the simple steps an award-winning school has taken towards making its school meals more sustainable, with advice on how you can do the same.

Last reviewed on 16 February 2024
School types: AllSchool phases: AllRef: 49233
  1. Small changes can make a big difference
  2. Take steps to reduce waste
  3. Try going ‘meat-free’ 1 day a week
  4. Buy seasonal ingredients from local suppliers
  5. Get pupils and parents/carers on board
  6. Incorporate sustainability into your curriculum
  7. Apply for an award
  8. Find more sustainability resources from The Key

Prospect House Specialist Support Primary School in Manchester is part of Prospere Learning Trust. It offers specialist support to children with very significant learning needs and other additional needs, aged 3 to 11 years-old.

The school is a winner of the ‘2023 sustainability star’ of Jamie Oliver’s Good School Food Awards. Learn more about how your school can enter the awards, further down this article (the next deadline is 24 March 2024).

We spoke to deputy headteacher Robin Anthony, and the trust’s head of catering Kay Brownlie, about how they achieved this.

Small changes can make a big difference

Eating sustainably is about making small changes that add up to make a big impact. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has shared 6 tips to help you eat more sustainably. This advice is aimed at individuals, but it also applies to school meals.

It’s also about changing the behaviours and mindsets of your pupils and staff – though, as with any of these types of changes, don’t expect this to happen overnight. Start with easily achievable steps (you'll find ideas below) and build it up from there.

Take steps to reduce waste

Huge amounts of otherwise edible food are thrown away in the UK on a daily basis. This is a waste of your school’s money as well as the resources used to produce the food.

Think about where food is wasted: this can be during the cooking process, food left on pupils' plates, or food that goes off before it’s used. Find ways to cut down on waste at each stage in this process.

Prospect House started by putting a compost caddy in every classroom to collect food waste. The compost could then be used on the school garden.

Robin says they also carefully monitor food waste. If they notice certain foods are being left by pupils, they adapt their menu around their preferences. Food waste from the kitchen is weighed and Kay receives weekly reports from the catering team that informs menu planning and purchasing decisions.

Cut down on other types of waste

It’s not just food waste that can be easily reduced. Wherever possible, replacing single-use plastic packaging with compostable packaging is another way to cut down on the amount that gets thrown away.

Approach your local authority about any sustainability initiatives or resources it might have to help you get started with composting and recycling.

Try going ‘meat-free’ 1 day a week

Meat production is one of the biggest global producers of greenhouse gases, so reducing the amount of meat we consume is an important step in tackling climate change and becoming more sustainable.

Plant-based foods such as vegetables, beans and nuts generally have a much lower carbon footprint. They’re also cheaper than meat and a healthier option for pupils.

Prospect House introduced ‘meat-free Mondays’, as a day when no meat is served as part of school lunches.

Robin says that they’ve decided to change this to ‘climate-change Mondays’, because ‘meat free’ implies the children are missing out on something.

Prospect House has a long-term plan to entirely remove meat from their menu. This is a slow process, but it's already taken some steps towards this by no longer serving any red meat.

Go half-and-half

If you still want to serve meat in your school, you can try offsetting the protein content with vegetable-based protein options, such as lentils or chickpeas. For example, instead of just chicken curry, Prospect House uses a 50/50 mix of chicken and chickpeas.

This is a healthy and effective way of making meat go further and reducing the cost of meals.

Try putting vegetarian options at the top of the menu (download the example menu below to see how this can look). This normalises plant-based foods rather than meat being the ‘standard’ choice.

Sustainable school menu example - Prospect House Primary School PDF, 81.5 KB

Buy seasonal ingredients from local suppliers

Building your menus around fruit and vegetables that are in season is a great way to both keep the cost down and reduce food miles (the distance food has travelled).

Kay uses this handy guide to seasonal fruit and vegetables by the British Dietetic Association (BDA).

Buying ingredients that are out of season in the UK increases the cost and carbon footprint of meals, as more energy is needed to produce and transport the food from further afield. It’s also more likely to come packaged in single-use plastics.

Using local supplies is another way to get the best deals on fresh produce and cut down on food miles. Work with your catering team/provider to explore how you might implement this in your school.

You can use the Soil Association’s Food for Life Supplier Scheme to find accredited suppliers in your school’s area.

If you have the space, grow your own ingredients

Prospect House is fortunate to have the space to grow vegetables that can be used in the kitchen. Not only is this a cost-effective way to supply its own food, but teaches pupils a valuable lesson about where their food comes from.

Robin recommends potatoes as a particularly good choice to start with growing your own produce. However, if space is limited, growing herbs would also be an option (you can even grow these on a windowsill inside).

The school has recently acquired 2 chickens (called Pepsi and Shirley), who supply the majority of eggs used by the school kitchen.

Prospect House also keeps 2 therapy pigs named Sebastian and Dolores. Although these animals aren’t for eating, they help pupils learn about where meat comes from.

Get pupils and parents/carers on board

Simply asking pupils for their opinion is a great way to get them more engaged with the process. Children are increasingly concerned about sustainability and climate change, so give them a chance to share their views.

Prospect House set up a pupil-led Eco Council that takes a lead on all if its environmental projects. They also have responsibility for looking after the school’s animals and collecting the compost caddies, modelling the behaviour that the school would like all of their pupils to follow.

Getting parents and carers on board with the changes was also key to success. Invite them to take part in a ‘cook off’ or a sit-down meal to help them learn more about eating sustainably and understand what the school is trying to achieve.

Make the food appealing

As a special school, some of the pupils of Prospect House have very selective eating habits or are particularly sensitive to different textures and tastes. This posed an extra challenge for Robin and his catering team when developing school menus.

Providing ‘taster pots’ lets pupils try small amounts of new food to help them find out what they like and adapt to changes.

Make food appear vibrant and appealing by using brightly-coloured vegetables. This encourages pupils to eat a wider variety of foods, which is key to a healthy diet.

Use descriptive language to help pupils understand what they’re eating. For example, ‘Sri Lankan coconut curry’ sounds exciting, and also makes it clear what sort of flavour they should expect.

Incorporate sustainability into your curriculum

All pupils should be taught about sustainability. The DfE has published a policy paper outlining how the education sector should prepare children with the knowledge and skills needed to face climate change.

Prospect House is an accredited Eco-School. This programme provides schools with a framework to approach environmental issues in their curriculum and also let pupils make a difference in their school and community.

Read another of our case studies on how to embed sustainability into your curriculum.

Apply for an award

If you think your school is already doing great things to make school food sustainable, applications for Jamie Oliver’s Good School Food Awards 2024 are open until 24 March 2024.

Other award categories with prizes for your school include 'the food for fuel award with Joe Wicks,' ‘catering team champions’, ‘food educator of the year’ and ‘governor or school leader food hero’.

The form should take 5 minutes to complete.

Find more sustainability resources from The Key

There are lots of other ways your school can be more sustainable. Explore our sustainability resource hub to help you achieve a whole-school focus on climate action.


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