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Nurturing Minds, Bodies, and the Planet

By Sarah Reich and Dr. Alan Knobloch
Nurturing Minds, Bodies, and the Planet

(Photo source: Canva)

School food has always been a hot topic, particularly in an international school with its myriad of food cultures. The topic is getting hotter with environmental pressures on society to adopt a sustainable diet for the sake of our long-term health and the planet. This prompted us at the International School of Hamburg (ISH) to redefine our entire approach to school food and nudge our community towards healthier diets.

Building Environmental Awareness through Food Education: A Call to Action

We strive to cultivate environmental stewardship among our students. An impactful way we do this is by starting with what they chose to put on their plates. We want to raise our students´ awareness of the carbon footprint of their food habits, starting with their meat consumption. A recent report by the United Kingdom (UK) Climate Change Committee suggests that a 20 percent reduction by 2030 and a 35 percent reduction by 2050 could significantly contribute to reducing emissions by 10 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) by 2050. That doesn’t mean canceling meat completely but reducing its proportion in our diet. We have therefore reduced the amount of animal protein on the school menu to twice a week (Monday and Thursday for the flexitarian menu) and run a number of campaigns regarding the alternative sources of protein available in the food chain and on their plates. In order to build up awareness about our food carbon footprint we will provide the overall carbon footprint of each meal so that students can take this factor into consideration when choosing their meal plan.

Reducing Sugar Intake: A Cognitive Imperative

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the average child under 12 consumes a staggering 49 pounds of sugar annually, closely paralleling adult averages. Germany is not far behind. Beyond the immediate health implications, chronic sugar consumption has been linked to decreased attention spans and memory impairment, making challenging tasks like mathematics even more difficult for students. This issue is compounded by stress hormone release triggered by sugar intake, further hindering children's ability to focus and retain information.  Our teachers have also provided anecdotal evidence regarding students’ performance and behavior to support these findings. So why would we impair our students of their cognitive abilities by providing a sugar free-for-all on campus?

Not only do high-sugar foods not help, but they also displace essential brain foods like grains, vegetables, fruits, and dairy, contributing to a cycle of unhealthy eating habits which may be set for a lifetime. In response to this, and in order to boost our students' physical health and academic performance, we decided to seek paths to curtail our students’ sugar intake during school hours by limiting the availability of sugary food and beverages on campus and by providing healthier alternatives.

Rebalancing the Debate About Food

The challenge lies not only in altering dietary habits but also in reshaping the discourse around healthy eating habits. In this respect, we are competing with the outside world: With nearly £1 billion spent on advertising food in Britain for example, the overwhelming focus on ultra-processed foods makes it challenging for public health initiatives to be heard. For every £5 invested in public health education in the UK, the industry spends £200 marketing unhealthy junk food. We, therefore, cannot expect our students to get a balanced view of what constitutes a good diet through public discourse or get an understanding that not everything that looks like food is nutritious. To counteract this and give our students a fighting chance to make healthy eating choices, we strive to develop food pedagogy and mobilize our community around awareness campaigns for sustainable foods and diets. We also want to ensure that the school remains an advertisement-free space.

The Challenge: Food is Political

Dietary choices are deeply personal, and this is acutely felt in our diverse, multicultural K-12 school community that counts over 55 nationalities. However, it's essential to dispel the myth that dietary choices are entirely free. Factors such as family, gender, culture, and exposure to advertising, especially among young people, play a determining role here. For example, there is no consensus as to what constitutes child-appropriate food in the early years (children aged 3 to 5). Should children be served what they like to eat (nuggets and fries) or nudged to try new foods (broccoli or fish)? For some, particularly for certain demographic groups like male teenagers, the perception of being a meat eater becomes a strong aspect of their identity. Explaining to them that protein doesn’t only come from red meat, for example, is part of our task to educate young people about nutrition.

Food habits are ultimately a choice. Our goal is not to dictate students' food choices but to empower them to make informed, healthier, and more sustainable dietary decisions. By creating an environment conducive to these choices and providing comprehensive nutrition education, we aim to catalyze structural shifts in consumer habits, contributing to the wellbeing of our students and the planet.

Implementing Sustainable Change: A Collaborative Approach

As with most things, enacting meaningful change requires collaboration and buy-in at every level of our school and community from the outset. We, therefore, invited students from all grades, parents, and staff to join a cafeteria steering committee. It was charged with first creating a vision paper by collating all stakeholders’ input on requirements, ideas, and preferences for a school caterer and then developing a vision and goals for the future cafeteria. This was an essential step to getting lasting buy-in from our community.

This vision paper served as the basis for the drafting of the public tender for a new school caterer. Candidate caterers were then vetted by the administration and the top-tier candidates were presented to the committee.  The committee vetted the selected candidates according to pre-established criteria such as the variety of the food offered, the quality and taste, flexibility in responding to customers’ needs and the ability to make individual adjustments, customer service (such as online payment) and complaint management, environmental sustainability aspects such as waste management, regional and organic food produce, experiences, references, and pricing. This selection included visits to the candidates' work locations to taste their food. The preferred candidate was then recommended by the committee to the Head of School for the final decision.

Through this process, we found Katerine GmbH, a local company experienced in catering to boarding schools and, therefore, knowledgeable of the full dietary needs of young people. In this new partnership, we've instituted a variety of menus, including vegan/vegetarian and flexitarian options. Daily servings of seasonal, organic, locally produced fresh vegetables and fruits, along with the introduction of a salad bar, contribute to a healthier overall diet. Students are encouraged to try new things and adapt their servings to their individual needs in order to limit food waste.  Additionally, we continue to make a conscious effort to limit the availability of sugary and ultra-processed foods on campus until after school hours.

A member of the catering team has also joined the Cafeteria Committee which continues to meet regularly as the fora for an ongoing dialogue between the caterer and the school community to address emerging issues, plan healthy eating campaigns, and review their performance according to a quality criteria checklist.


We are just at the start of this journey but by embracing an Inquiring, Sustainable, Holistic (ISH) approach to food, we envision a future where our students are equipped to make conscious, sustainable dietary choices. By navigating the challenges as a community, we believe our school can play a pivotal role in shaping a healthier, more sustainable future for our learners and our planet.


Sarah Reich is the Director of Community Relations at the International School of Hamburg.

Dr. Alan Knobloch is the Head of School at the International School of Hamburg.

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