School meals have been a major issue for Slow Food for more than 10 years. The reality of the meals currently being served in school canteens in the Czech Republic rarely corresponds to Slow Food’s principles. This is the starting point for Slow Food’s participation in a new Czech school canteen project, which is trying to create systematic networking and find suitable partners to bring about fundamental change: rebuilding the system itself.
“We want to create an environment in the canteens where all children have access to food they enjoy and that is good for them, good for the producers and good for the planet,” explains Renata Lukasova, a member of Slow Food Prague, as she talks about the convivium’s decision to join the wider national project. “We have organized dozens of workshops for children as part of the after-school activities called School of Taste: Exercising our Senses,” she continues. “But it was still community work with only a small reach. We wanted more impact!”
The provision of school lunches is compulsory in the Czech Republic, as is school attendance. The Czech Republic has a robust system of 8,556 canteens which together serve a total of 400 million meals annually. This means not only a potentially very large impact on children’s health, but also the chance to play an educational role and teach children about the importance of choosing good, clean and fair food. Funding for school meals comes from three main sources: Parents pay the food costs, the state finances the salaries of school canteen staff and the municipality pays all operating costs (energy, cleaning, etc.). Most school canteens are state-owned and, because they are located on school grounds, a school canteen manager reports directly to a school principal.
The main state authorities involved are the Ministry of Education (responsible for management, finance and education) and the Ministry of Health (responsible for children’s health and nutrition). School canteens also fall under the remit of the Ministry of Agriculture as they can be an outlet for local products.
The Czech school meals system has been in place for almost 60 years and has undergone only minimal innovation during that time. Most school lunches are cooked on site, and the kitchens are gradually being equipped with modern technologies.
The area in which the system falters the most is the application of current nutritional trends, including sustainable operations. This month, a pediatric conference also had more to say about the importance of school meals. During the Covid era, the proportion of obese children in the population increased significantly. While 65.4% of Czech children have a normal weight, for the first time in history, there are more obese children than overweight children, and pediatricians are even talking about a “new type of child neglect.” In this alarming situation, the school canteen can step in and play a game-changing role. The first step is to start training the staff of school canteens—there are around 30,000, mostly female, throughout the country.
That is why Slow Food Prague has joined forces with a wide-reaching, long-term, strategic and non-profit project called It’s On Our Plate and We Care.
A multidisciplinary team of nutrition specialists, chefs and other expert gastronomic professionals are working in the project since 2020, which is supported by the Ministry of Education and under the patronage of the Ministry of Health. The aim is to prepare the tools and necessary documents for the modernization of the school catering system, leading it in the direction of health and sustainability and looking to make subsequent legislative changes. Slow Food Prague play a role in the area of education and sustainability. We not only teach children to choose good, clean and fair food but also train canteen staff to apply these Slow Food principles while preparing meals. Beyond the scope of these activities, we connect local producers with the school kitchen.
As part of the Call for Ideas 2022, Slow Food Prague has started to prepare training materials to help avoid the use of instant dehydrated products, which are very popular due to their convenience. This is becoming even more of an urgent topic due to the worsening economic situation.
These products are used in the kitchens for various reasons:
- Lack of knowledge about proper culinary techniques. Staff often do not have any culinary education, because it is not required.
- No school canteen training, which contrasts with the demand for wider choice, especially relating to trends such as plant-based diets.
- Several myths circulate among the staff, half-truths that are spread by food companies to sell as many of these overpriced products as possible.
As a result, many school canteens cannot imagine cooking without these instant products and no instructions are provided for how to cook without them.
Slow Food Prague, in cooperation with the National Institute of Public Health and chefs from Culinary Arts, has prepared two tools that are freely available to all canteens in the Czech Republic:
- Methodology – professionally verified guidance with instructions and recommendations for canteen cooks.
- Webinar – connecting nutrition and gastronomy in practice, with a focus on the preparation of broths, meat juices and sauces, looking at natural flavorings for food and limiting the use of salt, thus also contributing to sustainable cooking and eliminating waste in the kitchen.
More will be added to both materials. In the next few months, they will be followed by a set of practical training seminars on culinary techniques, organized with the guidance of professional chefs and exploring topics such as meatless dishes, fish dishes and attractive legume dishes.
The Slow Food Prague team is currently collaborating on the preparation of food quality standards for school canteens. If enough funding can be sourced, they can start working on an equipment guide and a set of kitchen standards.
This initiative is supported by Slow Food through the Slow Food Europe Call for Ideas 2022, and co-financed by the LIFE programme of the European Union. With this initiative, Slow Food is contributing to celebrating the 30th anniversary of the LIFE programme #LIFEis30