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Celebrating 20 years of making good food the easy choice

At Food for Life we believe that everyone should have access to healthy and sustainable food that is good for the climate, nature, and health.

For two decades, along with our partners, we have been driving innovation and solutions around good food, what that means, and how this can be achieved; by ensuring that the food we eat is working with our climate, nature, and health.

Innovating solutions to complex problems is part of our DNA. Our strong foundations were set with the pioneering collaboration between Soil Association, inspirational school cook Jeanette Orrey MBE, and Organix founder Lizzie Vann in 2003 when the Food for Life report was published. This groundbreaking report exposed the underinvestment and poor standard of food in schools across the UK, igniting a national conversation that continues to this day.

Following this report, National Lottery funding established the Food for Life Partnership, led by Soil Association and with support from Focus on Food, Garden Organic, Health Education Trust and the Royal Society for Public Health.

The partnership set good school food standards and engaged young people and their families to learn about health and sustainability. In 2014, when lottery funding ended, Soil Association took the partnership under its wing, and Food for Life was established.

“It was a real time of transition. We needed to find a viable way to go forward, which came through the local authorities commissioning Food for Life to embed a whole school approach. By 2015, we had a good portfolio of commissions, and we also launched our Schools and Early Years Awards as a chargeable scheme for settings outside of commission areas,” remembers James Cashmore, Managing Director.

Food for Life’s work with local authorities, schools and early years remains central to the programme’s mission, reaching thousands of children across the UK and making good food the norm.

Chloe Smee, Senior Programme Manager, first joined Food for Life as the Local Programme Manager in York, when the City of York Council commissioned the programme. “I was working with Clifton Green Primary School who were serving very diverse communities, including children who weren’t guaranteed a good meal at home, but the school were convinced food was a vehicle for change. We led our first school farmers market there – it was completely rammed, and everything sold out in twenty minutes! The school went on to achieve their Food for Life Gold Award, showcasing how food is a vehicle for change, celebration, and community.”

Since 2003, over 7500 schools and early years settings have enrolled with Food for Life, embedding a good food culture from classroom to canteen to give pupils access to good food and the knowledge of where it comes from.

The policy environment has become challenging since Food for Life’s earlier years. “I wish I could say that we’ve seen real progress in government food policy, but that wouldn’t be true. Some positive progress has been made – the introduction of universal free school meals for infants in 2014, for example – but we’re still a long way from the policy response we need,” shares Rob Percival, Head of Food and Health Policy.

Despite this, the programme is more relevant than ever. “The world has changed. The climate and nature crises have escalated, and public consciousness of their threat has fundamentally shifted. We’ll probably look back on 2019 as a watershed on this front, when the scale and urgency of the emergency filtered into popular awareness,” Rob continues, pointing to the programme’s priority of both public health and the environment as crucial.

As the external environment remains challenging, place-based work has become a priority for Food for Life; working at a local level and involving people and addressing issues which are specific to that area. “We’re all pretty disappointed with our national governments, particularly in England, and there’s been real recognition at a local level that we’re not going to get what we need from them,” begins Ruth Galpine, Associate Director of Food for Life. “We’re seeing a huge upswell in the good food movement at a local level. Changemakers are on the ground and making it happen, amazing people who see there’s a problem and say: ‘I’m going to do something about it.’” Programmes like Sustainable Food Places, a network of which Soil Association are a lead partner, bring together food partnerships across the country to link this movement of local activism and amass evidence to take to policy makers as a blueprint for national change. As Ruth sums up: “we don’t need to come up with something new, we have the answers – now we just need the support to get them out there.”

No matter the external environment, we know that good food is a right, not a privilege, and it shouldn't cost the Earth. Children deserve equal access to good food and food education to build healthy habits for life, and the food environment should make it easy for everyone to eat healthy and sustainable food. Working within such a complex food system, all those who have been involved with or supported Food for Life in the last 20 years, whether that’s as an employee, a caterer, a parent, a pupil, a community organiser, are crucial to making these changes from the ground up.

In the words of our founder Jeanette Orrey: “This was never about only one person; there have been many Food for Lifers over the years who have given so much to the programme of which I am very proud.”

Here’s to the next 20.