Classier food for our children

Some schools have been making nutrition a priority for years. Amy McLellan finds out what's on their menus
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The Independent Online

One celebrity chef, a turkey twizzler or two and ingredients that cost the same as a packet of gum and suddenly school dinners are front page news. The success of Jamie Oliver's Feed Me Better campaign prompted a swift response from the Government, complete with a photo call with the PM and a pledge from new education secretary Ruth Kelly to provide £220m in new funding to transform the quality of school meals. A minimum 50-pence spend per pupil per day has been pledged, along with better training for school cooks and the introduction of minimum nutritional standards.

One celebrity chef, a turkey twizzler or two and ingredients that cost the same as a packet of gum and suddenly school dinners are front page news. The success of Jamie Oliver's Feed Me Better campaign prompted a swift response from the Government, complete with a photo call with the PM and a pledge from new education secretary Ruth Kelly to provide £220m in new funding to transform the quality of school meals. A minimum 50-pence spend per pupil per day has been pledged, along with better training for school cooks and the introduction of minimum nutritional standards.

Kelly, stung by criticism that the new measures were a last-minute jump on a bandwagon that Oliver had got moving, insisted the issue had been a personal priority when she took on the job. This sniping between the Government, opposition politicians and the press has left some observers in the education and food sectors slightly bemused.

After all, school canteens didn't sprout the now infamous turkey twizzler or fishysaurus overnight. This has been an issue 20 years in the making and throughout that time there's been a head teacher, dinner lady or parent fighting the nutritional degradation of the school lunch.

The Caroline Walker Trust, for example, set out its first school meal nutrition guidelines, now widely accepted as the "gold standard", back in 1992. Jeanette Orrey, a dinner lady at St Peter's Primary in East Bridgford, began to regenerate her school's lunchtimes in 2000, while the Soil Association, which promotes healthy eating alongside a sustainable approach to sourcing and growing food, launched its Food For Life campaign in 2003.

Food For Life sets clear targets for school lunches: at least 50 per cent of the ingredients should be local, 30 per cent should be organic and 75 per cent of the food should be fresh rather than processed. The Soil Association also backs the nutritional targets set by the Caroline Walker Trust and wants schools to provide better education on food and sustainability issues, including farm visits.

Helen Browning of Eastbrook Farm near Swindon says these farm visits can make a real difference to children's attitudes to food. "The more children understand, the more inclined they are to eat a proper diet," says Browning, whose organic farm has been open to schools for the past decade.

Yet, as Jamie Oliver found in Greenwich, the change from a fat- and salt-rich diet of chips and nuggets can be hard to swallow.

"We've always been clear that the change has to be fairly slow so the children can get used to it," says Emma Noble of the Soil Association.

And it's not just children who can find it a difficult adjustment. Freshly prepared, nutritious meals require adequate kitchen facilities and staff trained to cook fresh ingredients rather than reheat pre-prepared meals. "In many schools, the kitchens are not designed to handle fresh produce and the catering staff has been de-skilled," says Noble. Many dinner ladies are only required to open packets and reheat food in the microwave, she says.

Asking the nation's dinner ladies to embrace major change when they earn an average of just £82 per week was always going to be tough. Alasdair Friend, head of Thomas Fairchild Community School in Hackney, admits his kitchen staff didn't always match his own enthusiasm. "That's actually where the Jamie Oliver programme helped," says Friend, whose school started the push for healthy school meals over two years ago and now serves 300 meals a day at a cost of 67 pence per child. "All the kitchen staff watched the programme and it helped give them the wider picture."

The costs needn't blow the school budget. In Shropshire, where the Food for Life project is being piloted in six schools, the meals come in at 51 pence per plate.

"We scratch our heads when people tell us they can't serve anything except processed foods for this money," says Bill Campbell of Shire Services, the council's in-house catering team. "Now, with this new money, we can put an extra nine pence on the plate and again increase the quality of the ingredients." Campbell's team is also working to reduce the food miles on the plate: some 95 per cent of the fresh meat is reared locally and 75 per cent of the fruit and veg is sourced in the UK.

Schools in Dorset are also embracing the "buy local" message. For the past two years, schools in west Dorset have been encouraging children to eat locally grown fruit and veg. "We charge 15p a day and for that the children get to choose three out of four different prepared fruits, vegetables and dried fruits to eat mid-morning in the classroom," explains Marian Smith of the Bridport Centre for Local Food, which runs the scheme.

A stall selling local fruit and veg, mostly organic, is set up outside Bridport Primary School once a week offering parents the chance to buy more for home.

"It's lovely to hear the children pestering mum for a bag of organic carrots," says Smith, who now has her sights set on school lunches. A "Soup At School" day is on the cards - offering a fresh soup made from local produce, a bread roll from a local bakery plus a healthy dessert - in a bid to present a hot, healthy and affordable lunch alternative for local school children.

It's this combination of healthy eating and sustainably farmed and sourced produce that is really exciting campaigners. "If the Food For Life campaign is taken up with real enthusiasm, then it will not only make a big difference to schools and the health of our children but it will also make a real difference to the countryside," says Helen Browning. "It could have an extraordinary impact."

FOOD FOR LIFE: THOMAS FAIRCHILD COMMUNITY SCHOOL

Thomas Fairchild Community School in Hackney embarked on its healthy eating drive over two years ago when its catering contractor, unhappy with the profit margins, pulled out a year early. For head Alasdair Friend, something of a self-confessed evangelical when it comes to nutrition in schools, this was a welcome chance to rethink the school's meal provision.

"We took over the employment of the kitchen staff directly," recalls Friend, who says he believes it's important to feed the body as well as the mind if you're going to give children the best chance at school. "Many heads are reluctant to take on more responsibility. I've heard people say they didn't come into education to deal with catering but I think it's a fundamental part of what we do.

"Once you take profit out of school meals then it's quite a surprise what you can do with the money you have. There's no processed food on our menu apart from the fish fingers. All the meat is organically sourced, apart from once a week when we have a halal option, and we offer a fresh organic vegetable every day."

Choice is limited to keep costs manageable and the children on track. "Three days a week there are just two choices, one meat and one vegetarian, and two days a week there are three choices," he says.

The response has been positive, with more than 90 per cent of children taking school meals. "We didn't make the change overnight. We needed to involve parents and get the children interested."

Friend says the new menus have "definitely contributed" to improved behaviour and concentration although he believes a bigger factor is the school's breakfast club. "We serve a good breakfast to about 50 children every morning and an organisation called Magic Breakfast hands out warm cinnamon bagels in the playground, which means no child comes to school hungry."

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