Jamie Oliver turned school dinners into a political hot potato. Now the woman who inspired his television crusade is training the cooks who cater for our kids. Can Caroline Stacey cut the mustard?

Sweet potato and lentil korma scents the sunny kitchen with fragrant spices. The free-range chicken has been expertly dismembered, a loaf of organic bread has been whizzed into crumbs and the chicken-breast goujons are turning crisp and golden in a state-of-the art oven. The dream school dinner is about to be served.

I've joined the dinner ladies, some of whom have been working for years without a day's training, at a school on an organic farm in Essex, Ashlyns Organics, where they are learning to prepare lunch the Jamie Oliver way.

Less than a year ago, the messianic moptop whipped the nation into a froth of outrage about the state of school meals, then topped it off with a gospel of hope, leaving parents, teachers and dinner ladies, even the Government, determined to feed their children better.

At the same time, the woman who first inspired Jamie to tackle school dinners began setting up this project to put into practice what he had preached from the pulpit of TV. Jeanette Orrey is school meals policy advisor to the Soil Association, which sets standards for and promotes organic farming, but she's also the nation's best-known dinner lady.

Her story of converting a Nottinghamshire primary school to organic meals, cooked with local produce, has become a deserving bestseller. The sequel, Second Helpings comes out in May.

This must be the only time in history a book called The Dinner Lady could sell like hot cakes. Jeanette Orrey shows it's possible to feed children properly. And I can't have been the only parent of primary school children who has thought she could have a go herself.

How hard can it be? Ask Sue Biggins. Sue is one of the new recruits, motivated by a love of good food, the determination and belief that children should be well-fed, and the desire for a job that fits in with school holidays.

She's three weeks into the job of feeding the children at St Peter's, Coggeshall. "Each day I'm so exhausted I think I can't go on. Then the next day I'm fired up about what I'm cooking and I look at the children and think it's worth it."

With half a dozen others, Sue has signed up for the course run at Ashlyns Organics by Jeanette Orrey and Simon Owen, the chef who worked behind the scenes as the cameras followed the less retiring Jamie's progress with the meals at Greenwich.

Since then, the Government has promised £280m over three years to help transform school meals into something edible and nutritious, and they claim there'll be training for staff, better kitchens and more money to spend on ingredients. Currently the average is still only 45p per child per meal. And this is the country's first course for school cooks.

The training kitchen at Ashlyns Organics has been running since July. Their aim is to supply organic vegetables direct to schools and to train or retrain dinner ladies to cook fresh, wholesome food, as much as possible bought locally, and where affordable, grown organically.

Nobody bothered training dinner ladies before. Jeanette Orrey has been in their shoes (steel-toed for safety) for 15 years, and can sympathise at the same time as setting an example. She doesn't call this training; it's "enhancing existing skills". They've already got skills, she points out, but "we're not chefs. We're cooks. We don't do fancy meals. We use what we've got."

Most of today's ladies began washing up for a few hours a day and worked their way up to cooks. They turn out meals for hundreds of children on a tiny budget, dish them all out in under an hour, then wash everything up by hand before leaving the floor clean.

"What are we called now?" Liz Kavanagh of Ingrebourne Primary School in Romford, asks fellow cook Jackie Hancock. "Catering supervisors, isn't it?" But as far as they're concerned they're still dinner ladies. "It's a term of endearment," Jeanette insists.

Cooks work in a dangerous place, with hot fat, slippery floors and heavy pans, and they're feeding a vulnerable group. The health and safety checklists are mind-boggling, the potential for disaster terrifying.

Wooden spoons harbour germs, so metal scrapes tooth-jarringly on aluminium, as women - some near retirement age - clatter giant pans that braggardly male chefs think only they can lift. Amid the steam and noise of a school kitchen, the procedures for making sure there is no risk of endangering the children are, to the uninitiated, endless.

Today's nutritious home-made chicken nuggets must be probed to check they have reached a high enough temperature. The length of time food is kept hot for and at what temperature has to be monitored and recorded. The probes themselves have to be checked and so must the temperature of fridges and freezers.

That's before they've thought about what to cook, their menu cycles, and their costs. Next year even stricter nutritional guidelines come in. But if cooks can't persuade children to eat healthier food, they lose their custom, and could go out of business.

"In the summer holidays I'm going to grow my nails, put on full make up every day and wear all my jewellery," sighs Sue Biggins, chafing in the new uniform she wears to produce fresh roast turkey for more than 130 children (50 more than she fed in their first week) on a budget of 60p per child. If she's any more successful they won't be able to cope with all 240 children.

I try to hide my ignorance and slovenliness, but on the second day of the course I'm the only one with yesterday's stains on her pinny and again forget to tuck my hair under a hat. I didn't know bacteria could multiply two-fold in 10 minutes.

I try to keep pace with their clearing up, but before I've started looking for a J-Cloth, the professionals have wiped down every surface in sight. I hadn't bargained on having to peel all those potatoes, nor completing the pages of checklists about cleaning what little and usually ancient equipment there is.

"I always hated barbecue rib day; opening those boxes and that yellow goo and the smell..." recalls Liz Kavanagh, casting her mind back to the time before the healthier catering regime at her school. Now she's cooking more fresh food, hardly ever fries anything and prefers it that way. Except that it all takes longer and her hours have been cut. "When we first started doing healthy food, I thought 'why us?' because I didn't want more work. But now I want to eat what we cook whereas before I wouldn't have dreamed of eating it."

Val Jones, head teacher of Tanysdell Primary School, has seen the difference it makes to the children to be offered a choice of hot meal, a vegetarian alternative, jacket potato or filled baguette and salad, prepared by Sue Alsford and the kitchen team.

The children choose each day's lunch in the morning so they can't complain it's not what they like. Sue's kitchen supplies two other schools, too, clocking up 1,100 lunches a week. Before Essex council washed its hands of the dinners, only 30 children at Tanysdell ate lunch, and now more than 100 look forward to Sue's meals.

"The children go out to play after lunch with full tummies, and behave better in the afternoon," Val observes. Many children didn't know what cucumber was, but now they'll try melon if Sue offers it for pudding.

Today is her first chance in 17 years to share ideas with other cooks, and Sue is swapping menu suggestions, time-saving cooking tips, and comparing tricks for persuading children to make healthy choices. Presentation is important, Simon Owen reminds them. And perseverance. And persuasion. Children will eventually eat salad, but even Jeanette has failed with Brussels sprouts.

Simon's talking about olive oil and herb-crusted fish, and nobody suggests he's a hopeless optimist. Sue will be cooking lamb stew and dumplings for the Coggeshall children, Liz plans to roast sweet potatoes, Sue Alsford to use more fresh produce. Headteacher Val Jones has gained "a greater appreciation of the skills my kitchen staff use every day and of the challenges they face." Ahh, say the dinner ladies.

However, not even the magnificent Jeanette Orrey and inspirational chef Simon Owen could teach me to be a dinner lady in just two days. Instead, the salutary lesson was how much it takes to be a good school cook. And we all learned what could be achieved with the backing of teachers, parents, and - remember your promises? - the Government.

Ashlyns Organics Training Kitchen, High Laver, Essex 01277 890 821; The Dinner Lady by Jeanette Orrey is published by Bantam, £16.99

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