Learning from Amsterdam's efforts to change food habits

There’s a quiet revolution going on in Amsterdam – schools and the city are taking the lead on changing the culture around food and supporting healthy eating. They are creating a new normal for their pupils, and their pupils’ families. And why is this important? It’s important because, in a city with significant levels of childhood obesity and overweight, now children are eating better, and getting more active. As a result, the childhood obesity levels are falling in Amsterdam, one of very few places to reverse this trend. 

Sweet drinks and chocolate are part of the problem, so schools have banned them. Advertising of high-fat, high-sugar foods drives children to want them, so sponsorship by such brands for city events and advertising on public transport has been limited. Getting kids active helps them lead healthier lives through to adulthood, so after-school activities are funded. And fruit juice in school has been replaced with water.

Sounds simple? Of course not. Just like the hardened refusal of some parents in the UK to accept Jamie Oliver taking Turkey Twizzlers out of school meals, so some parents in Amsterdam refused the new rules and sent their children into school with hidden chocolate bars. Teachers were challenged on the new measures, as “parents know best”. One of the biggest changes though has been in ending the use in schools of cakes and high-fat, high-sugar teats to celebrate success and events such as birthdays. I can remember my son being rewarded with a yard of chocolate for something at school, and, even then in the noughties, thinking this was something not quite right. 

In Amsterdam, schools, teachers, and other professionals in contact with children and families, have all shared the same healthy lifestyle message: eat well, keep active and get enough sleep, as the basis for living well and having a healthy future. Other measures have included working with local shops to encourage them to increase the amount of healthy foods in their range. Café owners have been encouraged to review their menus, offering more healthy options and reducing portion sizes, so that the message learned in school can easily be lived out in the community. 

So here’s the thing. These interventions cost very little, but the impact has been measurable. Should we also be following this model in the UK? If we are teaching children about healthy choices in food and lifestyle, then let’s give them the environment and the opportunity to live that way too, because children can’t be expected to make healthy choices in an unhealthy environment.

Flavour School is one way to support children to develop happy, healthy relationships with food: we enable children to explore healthier foods in simple, fun ways; we encourage them to take home what they’ve learnt and share it with their families. Flavour School aims to help create a new normal for children, where veg, fruit and wholegrains are familiar and welcome. But of course it’s only one piece of a much bigger puzzle. Many UK schools are already doing amazing work to support children to eat and live more healthily, and many others would no doubt love to do more. Drawing on what’s been learnt in Amsterdam to empower schools on this front while also creating that wider enabling environment, could really help increase the impact of all those efforts. I hope to see more of that kind of approach become a reality, creating a new normal for children that enables a healthier future.

Kate Morris
Flavour School co-founder

Photo by Jace & Afsoon on Unsplash