Education: More veg, please, and hold the chips: An extra 8,000 pupils opted for school meals when Staffordshire put stir-fry and gobi aloo curry on the menu, says Chris Arnot

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The Independent Online
The boy with the pudding-basin haircut and the figure to match removed a couple of lettuce leaves from a large but almost empty salad bowl and laid them on his plate. 'That'll do me,' he said, heading towards the food servery for sausage roll and chips. Nearby, a girl built on similarly ample lines was about to tuck in to fish fingers and chips smothered in gravy.

It sounds like a depressingly familiar snapshot of lunchtime in a school dining hall, confirming the damning view of children's diet put forward this month by the National Forum for Coronary Heart Disease Prevention.

But here at Churnet View Middle School in Leek, Staffordshire, the picture is not quite what it seems. For a start, the boy had found the salad bowl almost empty because other children had beaten him to it. They had also made substantial inroads into a bowl of fresh coleslaw. Both had been placed on a trolley deliberately positioned close to the entrance.

Another trolley had been commandeered by a dinner lady, who was handing out small sample trays of gobi aloo curry, a vegetarian dish containing, among other things, cauliflower, chick peas, onions, tomatoes and pineapple. Very much an acquired taste, the curried pineapple. 'I prefer it as a pudding,' said 11-year-old Debbie Boden to nods of agreement.

The gobi aloo was receiving mixed reviews on day four of a week-long sampling of healthier dishes, promoted by Staffordshire County Council. The turkey stir-fry had proved popular, as had the carrot cake, with a lower sugar content than most school puddings. Churnet View children had been less enthusiastic about a creamy pasta dish, but the home-made wholemeal garlic bread had gone down well. 'We're looking to widen the choice and help youngsters to recognise that healthy food can also be fun food,' said the headteacher, Roy Smith.

Staffordshire is the first local authority to follow guidelines from the Guild of Food Writers to encourage healthier options. The result contradicts the widely held view that children are interested only in burgers, fish fingers and chips, chips, chips. Staffordshire schools serve more than 78,000 meals a day, 8,000 more than last year. And two- thirds are paid for rather than free, enabling many schools to make a small profit.

Staffordshire's head of catering, Marlene Hulland, and her staff have been going round the county's schools promoting what they call the 'Tasty Challenge'. Children have been offered free samples to arouse their interest. 'They like being consulted,' said Mrs Hulland. 'Offer them a spoonful of cabbage and they wouldn't touch it, but there are other ways of getting them to eat vegetables.' Putting vegetables into pies and stir-fries is one option; piling peppers and mushrooms on top of pizzas is another.

Miriam Poulnin of the Guild of Food Writers is delighted with the apparent success of the Staffordshire scheme, but conscious that it rather bucks the national trend. 'We're very worried about children's food. It's not just a matter of health. A generation is growing up that doesn't know what good food is.'

Their chances of finding it at school vary according to where they are brought up. If they happen to be in Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Somerset or Hereford and Worcester, only those entitled to free school meals will be served the basic legal requirement: sandwiches.

Other authorities are trying to save money by closing kitchens and sacking dinner ladies. Coventry, for instance, plans to supply more than 100 schools from only 30 kitchens. Roger Davis, chairman of the Local Authorities Caterers' Association, is sceptical. 'Once you start delivering food in containers, it deteriorates. They will find the take-up of paid-for meals will decline and any savings will diminish accordingly.' He is more scathing about those councils that provide no hot meals at all. 'An abrogation of responsibility,' he calls it. 'It should be up to educators to show children how to eat well and healthily.'

But isn't that the responsibility of parents? 'A large number of young mothers from low-income groups don't know how to cook. They buy expensive convenience foods that are high in salt and fat.'

Nutritional standards in school meals were abandoned by the Education Act of 1980, and local authorities were required to put their catering operations out to tender every five years. Accordingly, councils from Sunderland to Wandsworth are now supplied by private firms.

Gardner Merchant provides meals for some 500 schools, but it has been stronger in the independent sector. The company has introduced its own 'Healthwise' training programme for staff, stressing the need for more fibre and less fat, salt and sugar. 'But I have to tell them that no food is nutritious unless it is eaten,' said Maureen Strong, dietician (education services). 'We have to respond to demand. If you put 100 per cent wholewheat flour in puff pastry, for instance, nobody will eat it.'

Mrs Strong is a member of one of the working groups involved with the Nutrition Task Force, set up under the Government's survey of the nation's health. Not before time, according to Tim Lang, acting chairman of the School Meals Campaign and professor of food policy at Thames Valley University. 'At last the Government seems to have realised it must tackle the food-related ill health of the country.

'Only when children are given a decent diet in schools will what they're taught about healthy eating make sense. They're told one thing in the classroom, but see the opposite in tuck shops and dining halls. And the message flies in the face of half-a- billion pounds' worth of food advertising.'

(Photograph omitted)