Understanding school food systems to support the development and implementation of food based policies and interventions

Maria Bryant, Wendy Burton, Niamh O’Kane, Jayne V. Woodside, Sara Ahern, Phillip Garnett, Suzanne Spence, Amir Sharif, Harry Rutter, Tim Baker, Charlotte E. L. Evans

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (SciVal)


Background: Schools provide opportunities to improve the quality of children's diet, whilst reducing inequalities in childhood diet and health. Evidence supports whole school approaches, including consistency in food quality, eating culture and food education. However, such approaches are often poorly implemented due to the highly complex environments in which schools operate. We aimed to develop a school food systems map using a systems thinking approach to help identify the key factors influencing primary school children’s dietary choice. Methods: Eight workshops were conducted with 80 children (from schools from varying locations (region of England/UK; urban/rural), deprivation levels and prioritisation of school food policies)) and 11 workshops were held with 82 adult stakeholders across the UK (principals, teachers, caterers, school governors, parents, and local and voluntary sector organisations) to identify factors that influence food choice in children across a school day and their inter-relationships. Initial exploratory workshops started with a ‘blank canvas’ using a group model building approach. Later workshops consolidated findings and supported a wider discussion of factors, relationships and influences within the systems map. Strengths of the relationship between factors/nodes were agreed by stakeholders and individually depicted on the map. We facilitated an additional eight interactive, in-person workshops with children to map their activities across a whole school day to enable the production of a journey map which was shared with stakeholders in workshops to facilitate discussion. Results: The final ‘CONNECTS-Food’ systems map included 202 factors that were grouped into 27 nodes. Thematic analysis identified four key themes: leadership and curriculum; child food preference; home environment; and school food environment. Network analysis highlighted key factors that influence child diet across a school day, which were largely in keeping with the thematic analysis; including: 'available funds/resources', 'awareness of initiatives and resources', 'child food preference and intake', 'eligibility of free school meals', 'family circumstances and eating behaviours', 'peer/social norms', 'priorities of head teachers and senior leaders'. Conclusions: Our systems map demonstrates the need to consider factors external to schools and their food environments. The map supports the identification of potential actions, interventions and policies to facilitate a systems-wide positive impact on children’s diets.

Original languageEnglish
Article number29
JournalInternational Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 13 Mar 2023

Bibliographical note

Research relating to this abstract was funded by the Medical Research Council,
Public Health Intervention development fund (MRV003860/1).

Availability of data and materials
The datasets used and/or analysed during the current study are available from
the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Funding Information:
Research relating to this abstract was funded by the Medical Research Council, Public Health Intervention development fund (MRV003860/1).

Funding Information:
We are grateful to our Partnership board, who provided oversight, steered the direction of investigation and supported our consideration of impact: School Food Matters, Department for Education (England), Department of Education (Northern Ireland), Public Health Agency (Northern Ireland), Children’s Food Campaign, Leeds City council, Newcastle council, Bradford council, the GENIUS network. We are thankful to the many stakeholders who engaged with the CONNECTS-Food study, all of which were central to the production of our systems map, including: schools, children, teachers, school staff, parents, governors, caterers, local authority representatives and national stakeholder organisations.


  • Children
  • Diet quality
  • Environment
  • Food
  • Map
  • Network
  • School
  • Stakeholder
  • System

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Physical Therapy, Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation
  • Nutrition and Dietetics


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