At the table with … Judy Hargadon

14/03/2013 - 15:25
Outgoing chief executive of the Children’s Food Trust, Judy Hargadon, is stepping down after ‘fighting the good fight’ for school food standards. She describes herself as an optimist who believes we can keep making food better for children

When you were at school what was your dream job?
I always wanted to be a teacher.

What did you end up doing?
Health care management – I was a health authority and NHS trust chief executive.

How did your career develop?
I was a national NHS management trainee and started on the traditional career. From my mid-twenties, each change was about improving what I saw to be wrong: first industrial relations, then on to management development, community health services, primary care and then workforce structures. All were about getting the best for patients through motivated staff, and about pulling care away from hospitals into homes and the community – preventing what acute hospitals spend a fortune treating.

What started your interest in food, nutrition and health?
It was a combination of all sorts of things: reading ‘Diet for a Small Planet’ at university, living with vegetarians, having children, Tim Laing talking at an NHS event in the late 80s about how few children could cook.

What did you hope to achieve when you became chief executive of the School Food Trust (SFT)?
As a frustrated parent and school governor, I saw the chance to help make things better. I had tried hard to get it right for my children as they were growing up, but it was a struggle with the market, school and sometimes even other parents not helping.

Do you believe the school food standards you helped introduce have worked?
They’ve made huge progress. The evidence shows the standards were starting to make a difference to what children eat – both in and away from school. But we also know that the support needed to get the standards embedded and the other aspects of lunchtime right was pulled at a critical time. Complex changes like this need a steady hand with ongoing support, so that each and every school can make the changes it needs to. So I also know that standards aren’t yet working as well as they could do everywhere.

Is there still have a role for them or is it time to take a new approach?
Absolutely. Of course we need to update and review them regularly, as has been the case over the years when small changes have been made. But evidence shows that voluntary standards don’t work and the hard reality – in all walks of life – is that when there is financial pressure, people don’t always do what they know is best.

What was your reaction when you heard about Education Secretary Michael Gove’s initiative for a School Food Plan?
I was glad that he realised that good food in school is an important issue.

Taking an optimistic view, what do you hope the School Food Plan will achieve?
A recognition that some central funding, support and motivation is essential and getting things moving again. We’ve lost nearly three years.

Realistically, what do you expect from the School Food Plan?
I’ve been very impressed with the way John [Vincent] and Henry [Dimbleby] have taken on the complex analysis we’ve presented to them in various meetings when they started this work. Many, many different actions are needed to keep school food improving and they have recognised this.

Is there evidence in the UK that healthy eating messages and campaigns are having any effect?
Messages and campaigns alone cannot work, especially for children who are developing their decision-making skills and need an environment that helps them make good choices. Even as adults, with all the best information in the world, we don’t always make wise choices. What works in schools is improved information with a range of other activities to support good food choices.

What is it in the food we eat that most needs changing?
For me, it’s getting back to basics – good food, cooked from scratch rather than heavily-processed products.

What’s the best way for such changes to be made?
We’ve got to make it the social norm to eat well, to eat a balanced diet. That’s the example our children need to develop good food habits.

Do you believe it is right to use school feeding to promote healthier eating?
Absolutely. School is where we educate children. We need to be taught about good food and cooking skills just as much as reading and writing.

If so, what role should school caterers play?
School chefs, cooks, assistants and lunchtime supervisors are the front line of public health. The food they offer children and young people, how they encourage them to eat well and their role in exposing children to practical cooking skills are fundamental to helping them develop good food habits.

What has been the biggest challenge for you in your work for the SFT and later the Children’s Food Trust (CFT)?
The scale of the change that school food faced was huge and it was always going to take many years. So we would have liked to have seen more money for support for schools all along – but I think we’ve used what we had well. People think that opposition to the standards was the biggest challenge; some will remember a famous London Authorities Caterers Association (LACA) question time! But I never bothered about that; of course people were anxious about introducing such significant changes in a tough economic climate. What’s wonderful is that so many people are now fierce defenders of the standards, now they see the changes we all made together.

‘De-quango-ing’ was not easy either.  Not just because we had to build work with other funders, but because very little central planning had been done about the legal issues of ceasing to be a public body. That caused a massive amount of extra work.

How have you tackled this work?
With determination, hard work and a passionate belief in our goal.

What has been the biggest achievement of the SFT and CFT?
I can’t narrow it to one. The Let’s Get Cooking programme – we’ve created the biggest national network of healthy cooking clubs in schools. And it’s still growing, with clubs launching in all sorts of other parts of the community now, even in workplaces. A total of 5,000 clubs have reached more than 2.5m people with cooking skills – incredible. But also, the steady year-on-year increase in take up of school meals, in the face of rising costs and prices.

Launching the first national, voluntary guidelines for healthy food and drink in early years settings, which have been so well received in their first year by nurseries, childminders and those who support them. Finally, all the wonderful individual stories from children and parents about how eating better and learning to cook changes their lives.

What are you most proud of personally in your work?
We focused on sustainable changes that could be made by real people in the real world, not quick fixes that look good and then fade.

What are your work plans now, or are you retiring?
I’m retiring. Turning 60 last year made me think of all the other things I still have to do in life. But I will volunteer a little for my favourite charity, the CFT, as an ambassador for their work.

Are you optimistic about the future? If so, why?
For the CFT, absolutely, with my successor Linda Cregan and the fabulous staff and trustees we have. For children’s food? Well, I’m essentially an optimist and I believe that if we all – all those of us who care – pull together we can keep making food better for children. And we now have an evidence base to pin this on.

If you had five minutes with David Cameron, what would you tell him was on your wish list?
That it would be good to get on with improving food for children again. There is no more time to waste.

On a personal level, what’s your dream three-course meal?
I’m a two starters person, to leave room for dessert. I love veggies, especially asparagus, radishes, fennel, beetroot, butternut squash, cauliflower (I made a great winter salad with cauliflower this weekend) and I love cheese. So, a starter of goat’s cheese salad, then perhaps some hot smoked salmon and then tarte tatin for dessert.

Anything to wash it down with?
My husband is the expert on wine so I usually let him choose, but at the moment my favourite is a Pinot Noir. I’m not very sophisticated about pairing wine and food!

If you hadn’t had your career, what would you have liked to do?
Well, I always dreamed of having a small-holding, though who knows whether I would have made a success of it. City life has put paid to my growing skills – perhaps an allotment in retirement?

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