Food: Word of mouth - Meals on wheels

Caroline Stacey hits the road with mobile cookery teacher Anita Cormac

Something's cooking in the Waitrose car park. These inviting aromas are coming from cheesy cornbread, broccoli tartlets and filo pastry parcels prepared by lone parents in a mobile teaching kitchen that arrived at dawn today. At the end of the day everything's tidied away, the floor folds up and the five cookers retract into the trailer before the Cooking Bus is driven away to its next appointment.

Each year thousands of schoolchildren and hundreds of adults climb on board this immaculate classroom on wheels for a chance to try their hand at cooking. For this is a pounds 500,000 teaching aid designed to introduce the pleasures of cooking natural, nutritious food to schools and other groups who have missed out on learning how, especially now that cooking has all but disappeared from the school curriculum.

To Jill Luke and Jennette Lasen, the advisory teacher and food technician who travel with the bus, it's their project, but the woman who is the prime mover behind the bus is Anita Cormac.

A grammar-school girl who had to drop Latin and take domestic science O level instead, Cormac became a home economics teacher. After a study break she joined a charitable education trust, to take a bus packed with all kinds of educational support materials to assist design teachers.

"I haven't really got an obsession with mobile vehicles for education," she pleads unconvincingly. For, although she no longer drives a bus - this one needs an HGV licence - she was responsible for getting the Cooking Bus on the road, and recalls its debut last June. "It was such an emotional moment, I jumped up and down waiting for it to come down the road in the dark. I still feel a terrible sense of responsibility for it and its operation. It's my bus."

Realising this could be a dynamic way forward for food education, she approached the Royal Society of Arts, the body which establishes cultural and educational projects. The RSA said: "If you manage to find the funding, we'll support it."

Cormac won sponsorship from Waitrose, and the RSA's Focus on Food campaign, of which she is director, was launched last year. The "huge, expandable pantechnicon" is the most visible part of her mission to bang the pots and pans for food education in primary and secondary schools. Equipped for 16 learners to get to grips with practical cooking, in a year it visits about 100 schools - as well as training adults - as part of the education programme devised by Cormac.

"To operate this bus effectively you have to be very well organised," she says, and there's no doubt that she is. For, as she puts it: "The bus is the glittering tip of an iceberg. Focus on Food is not just about teaching children to cook. It's securing the position of food within the national curriculum, working with teachers, and providing educators with a huge variety of materials and resources."

All of these are produced by Cormac and sent out to schools throughout the year, to keep the subject simmering away among schoolchildren. Then for one week, 21 to 25 June, the heat on food education is turned up when around 1,000 schools - double last year's number - take part in Focus on Food Week, discovering the fun of preparing, sharing and eating food.

As a full-time and seemingly tireless advocate of food education, Cormac doesn't often get the chance to put on her apron and do what she loves and is trained to do - teach children to cook. When she does, she says, "I still think of myself as a teacher." But at the end of the day, although Cormac organises all this from an office in Halifax, she is just as likely to be found mopping the bus's floor in Finchley, Beckenham or Bracknell before she leaves her beloved vehicle and goes home to her farmhouse in Yorkshire.

Focus on Food 01422 383 191 email:

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