Rethink Food: Leeds former teachers provide digital platform to help put healthy eating on the curriculum

Two teachers were horrified by pupils turning up to school hungry. Now they work to ensure food education is on the curriculum. John Blow reports.

So inspired was Kevin Mackay to tackle the issue of child hunger after a talk with Nathan Atkinson, now his business partner, that he quit his old job the next day. The roots of what became their enterprise, Rethink Food, go back to 2014 and the former teachers incorporated it as a community interest company in 2018.

Both had offered surplus food to pupils and their families after witnessing how hunger was hampering childrens’ ability to learn. However, it became clear to them that the issue was much more complex than simply providing ingredients and they knew that a long-term vision, making sure food education was part of the curriculum, was the answer.

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Nathan, 47, was working in a Leeds primary school with high levels of deprivation in 2014 when an incident occurred which highlighted that children were arriving to class hungry. “Bearing in mind 2014 was before the pandemic, before the cost of living crisis, so children arriving at school hungry was shocking, but also just the scale of the vulnerability of the young people,” he says. “After this incident happened, I wrote the word ‘hunger’ on my office wall, and vowed to remove hunger as a barrier to learning.”

Nathan Atkinson and Kevin MacKay of Rethink Food. Photograph by Richard Walker/ImageNorth.Nathan Atkinson and Kevin MacKay of Rethink Food. Photograph by Richard Walker/ImageNorth.
Nathan Atkinson and Kevin MacKay of Rethink Food. Photograph by Richard Walker/ImageNorth.

Initially that involved setting up projects which “are quite common now” but were not at the time, he says.

“We offered a universal breakfast for children and built a cafe in my school and started to bring the community together through food. And then we started to see that we couldn't justify spending school money on food, so I found that supermarkets were throwing a lot of food away and connected with some local organisations that were doing good stuff around food and got some connections myself and set up a little market stall at the school gates, and used it as a positive way to engage with the community and bringing people together through food.”

He put on an awareness day, which caught the attention of Kevin, who worked at another school in the city.

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“I was a year three teacher at the time. The class that I had was probably the worst that I've seen in terms of a relationship with food and that's kind of where my mission started around education with food,” says Kevin, 37. “They just didn't understand where it came from, how it was produced, transported, none of that knowledge was there.”

The Rethink Food team. Photograph by Richard Walker/ImageNorth.The Rethink Food team. Photograph by Richard Walker/ImageNorth.
The Rethink Food team. Photograph by Richard Walker/ImageNorth.

Having heard about the work that Nathan was doing with surplus food, he managed to get a trial started at his own school.

“I remember being pretty smug myself, thinking, I've cracked it. This delivery of amazing food is going to turn up at the school and parents and children are going to take it and we've done it - they're not going to come to school hungry anymore.

"And the first market stall was a huge flop. Nobody came and we started to realise that education is key. All the barriers that people were facing to walk across a playground to access food were just huge – the stigma around the surplus food, that pride that they held. It was a much more complex problem than just providing that provision of food.”

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He turned the programme into six weeks of work around the environmental impacts of food and, by the end, the surplus market stall “had a completely different narrative”, with families visiting to “save the planet”, while teachers were able to work closely with those who did need support.

Lily Fairbairn, Kevin Mackay Sophie Lynch and Nathan Atkinson of Rethink Food. Photograph by Richard Walker/ImageNorth.Lily Fairbairn, Kevin Mackay Sophie Lynch and Nathan Atkinson of Rethink Food. Photograph by Richard Walker/ImageNorth.
Lily Fairbairn, Kevin Mackay Sophie Lynch and Nathan Atkinson of Rethink Food. Photograph by Richard Walker/ImageNorth.

“It was key and vital that we were matching this short-term support even in those early days with this longer term vision around empowering education. On the back of that six weeks - it was genuinely the best thing I’ve done with young people, the engagement levels were incredible - I arranged to meet Nathan and went up to his school. We chatted for a few hours and I quit my job the next day and said: ‘Let's go do this, let's fight this social injustice together’. And Nathan followed a year later.”

While they still operate as a surplus food distributor - supporting 300 families weekly in Leeds - ultimately, they want pupils to be given access to food sustainability education to break what they see as a circular pattern of childhood related issues stemming from food such as hunger, behaviour, obesity and tooth decay. The Food Foundation charity reported in 2021 that almost a third of children (29 per cent) aged between five and 10 reported eating less than one portion of veg a day, 98 per cent aged four to 10 were exceeding the recommended intakes for free sugars and 89 per cent of the recommendation for saturated fat.

So having moved to their new premises at Maple Park in Holbeck this year, Rethink Food have launched a new platform full of digital teaching materials on diet, healthy eating, lifestyle choices and physical activity. It is designed by teachers for teachers, available across the UK, and the non-profit, which runs on a team of 14 employees, has set itself a challenge to deliver 10 million hours of food education into 7,000 primary schools by 2030.

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There is a team of actors, film producers, content creators, academic consultants as well as Nathan and Kevin who are building this bank of downloadable and adaptable content. Schools can sign up for free trials and then it is £200 per year for a primary school to access the teaching materials.

Meanwhile, Rethink Food has also forged corporate partnerships with the likes of Asda, Greggs Foundation and Quorn, and is on the lookout for help from businesses which might, for example, be able to sponsor a school’s subscription.

Kevin says: “We have a team of people now with decades of experience in primary schools, from different areas, different backgrounds, and the way that we create content and then deliver it into schools is reflective of that. We have researchers that work with us, we have script writers, we have former head teachers that help us map it to the curriculum and looking make sure that it's reachable to diverse places that schools are. So it is difficult, but it's an amazing challenge as well, that we embrace to make sure that there is amazing food education for everybody.”

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