Small Change Big Difference, a campaign piloted in London schools, has been harnessing pupil power to reduce waste and inspire a rethink of food shopping, eating and recycling

Getting children to eat a balanced diet can be hard work. But teach messages about sustainability alongside nutrition and they may start to make positive choices, as Small Change Big Difference has discovered. The pilot, which ended in March, has been run in 24 schools across eight London boroughs for two years, using workshops for Years 4, 5 and 6. 

Small Change Big Difference

Part of an EU-funded pilot targeting the capital’s schools, households, communities and businesses, Small Change Big Difference has brought together leading sustainability organisations under the TRiFOCAL London banner. Two years on, the schools element, delivered through social and environmental charity Groundwork London, has been named one of the world’s ten most inspiring sustainability projects for young people by education non-profit HundrED. What is so brilliant about Small Change Big Difference is that it has created a virtuous circle, getting a young army of pupils aged between eight and 11 engaged in delivering sustainable food ideas to school, home and community. Caroline Chapman, the education specialist who delivered the six-workshop programme for Groundwork London, says children have enjoyed the experiential design and the feeling of being in charge. “From day one, the children have been really responsible,” she says. It has also worked for schools because they were involved in workshop design via a teacher panel – enabling the programme to tie in with lesson plans and the curriculum for each year group. 

Measurable Results

The programme has provided measurable results in a six-week schedule of weekly workshops. The starting point has been teaching children about avoiding waste and recycling. A dry and sometimes worthy topic, but not if you add in games – including a hugely popular food waste version of snakes and ladders. Armed with key facts, children have become ‘food warriors’ in school lunch halls, collecting and weighing edible and inedible food waste by year group. Next task has been to investigate foods being wasted and ask why. While adults might find poring over leftovers less than palatable (especially the early ‘show and tell’ where a whole bin of kitchen waste is tipped onto tarpaulin), Chapman says the pupils have relished the challenge, using bar charts and other tools to measure, analyse and then reduce. “It has meant competition between year groups to achieve the most waste reduction, also encouraging pupils to finish their plate,” says Caroline Chapman. 

The results have been dramatic, with some school year groups reducing their lunch-hall food waste by 87 per cent over the six weeks. Children’s analysis of what was being wasted has gone further. In one school, ‘food warriors’ found consensus that portions of some meals were simply too large to finish. Inspired by the pupil poll and findings, catering staff adjusted food orders, meaning much less waste. School caterers, notes Chapman, have been hugely supportive. 

A Positive Focus

Chapman says that messages to pupils have focused on positives. “To make the project more relevant to children, the school workshops were called ‘Yes to Taste, No to Waste’, which pupils loved chanting in each workshop.” Although children were initially more engaged by ideas around sustainability, they then made the connection back to eating well. “After learning about healthy and sustainable eating, where they sampled different smoothies made using leftover and ‘wonky’ fruits and vegetables that they might not usually eat, children became excited by trying new foods and the majority started making smoothies at home.”  

In fact, taking the workshop lessons home has been integral to the programme’s success. Children received a workbook and were asked to achieve one or more pledges each week in their own home. These included trying a new fruit or vegetable, managing the family fridge using FIFO (first in, first out), cooking with leftovers and composting or recycling. Then there’s the family shop – children were encouraged to think about foods using a game called ‘good for you, good for the planet’. This looked at food in terms of energy to produce (transport, CO2, and so forth) versus nutritional benefit. Armed with this information, they could then help choose the best foods for the family shopping trolley. 

Home pledges were fed back to year groups to keep the challenge going. “Pupils have taken pride in being given responsible roles,” says Chapman. “Some were pledge monitors, counting how many different pledges each pupil achieved and adding a star to the ‘pledge chart’.”

Parent Pledges

Parents bought into pledges too. A starting point was children going home armed with bottom-line statistics about the cost per London household of food waste (up to £800 per year). Parents were asked to co-sign their child’s workbook each week. Some started composting or had creative cooking sessions with their children – devising new recipes with leftovers.  The final goal for each school has been to design a campaign day. Here, children were incredibly creative – planning and then promoting an event that involved the community. Among the many brilliant ideas have been a school smoothie bike using surplus fruit and school cookbooks of recipes using leftovers. One school created a community fridge to share surplus food. After each campaign event, pupils have held assemblies, organised video links and embedded a school-wide action plan, giving the initiative longevity. 

Small Change Big Difference is now inspiring the design of other food sustainability projects across major European cities, from Dublin and Oslo to Sofia and Milan. And a schools information pack will become available across the UK this autumn, so hopefully many more schoolchildren will be championing delicious food with less waste – and getting parents and the community behind their brilliant ideas. 

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