Goodbye chips and burgers

Inspired by the television chef Jamie Oliver, Caitlin Davies returns to her old primary to discover how it has reintroduced fresh ingredients and real cooking to school meals
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The Independent Online

Jamie Oliver has launched a TV campaign to improve the dire state of school meals in his new series Jamie's School Dinners on Channel 4. At the same time the Education Secretary Ruth Kelly has said that she wants parents to become more involved in what their children eat at school.

Jamie Oliver has launched a TV campaign to improve the dire state of school meals in his new series Jamie's School Dinners on Channel 4. At the same time the Education Secretary Ruth Kelly has said that she wants parents to become more involved in what their children eat at school.

So here I am rather worriedly settling my 41-year-old bottom on to a chair usually occupied by a five-year-old. It's been 30 years since I ate at Brookfield Primary School in Highgate, north London. It's Wednesday lunchtime and I'm with my daughter Ruby. This is my old primary school and I'm dreading being presented with lumpy grey mashed potato and semolina covered with Day-Glo syrup.

I take my red plastic tray and follow Ruby to a long table at the end of the dining hall. She hasn't been this excited since Christmas. "This is delicious," she says, pointing to her lamb bolognese that's accompanied by a cucumber salad and rounded off with a large chunk of pineapple. "Whoever eats this will get strong," agrees her classmate, Lilha.

Brookfield School is experiencing a small revolution sparked by disgruntled parents who discovered the same things as Jamie Oliver - that school meals are unhealthy, processed and, frankly, inedible. On our table are 30 children and only two are eating a packed lunch. Last December most of Brookfield's 460 pupils were bringing in their own food.

That changed when the school became the first in Camden to opt out of the council's contract with Scolarest (part of the Compass Group, the world's largest catering firm) and decided to cook its food in-house. Today 70 per cent of pupils eat school dinners. "Last year the quality of the food was so poor that pupils would throw away what was on their plates," says Dilys Hillman, the headteacher. "Now the entire atmosphere at lunchtime has changed. It's become a social experience."

Last week I chose vegetable korma with rice and minted peas, followed by fresh fruit salad. The menu change is solely as a result of parental involvement. That is a message that Jamie Oliver needs to hear. Get the parents on your side and change will happen. Brookfield parents grew so disgusted with the previous fare, particularly the amount of processed food on offer, that they decided to take action. I can vouch for the fact that the food used to be poor. When Ruby started in reception last year I asked her immediately what she had to eat. "Chips," she said. Anything else? "And a window."

A window for lunch? "It was square like a window," she explained. "The dinner lady said it was a waffle." So that's chips and a waffle? Where was the fresh fruit and vegetables?

Guilt set in. Should I emulate my friend Lyn, a single parent of two on income support who makes a nutritious lunch box for her daughter Stella that contains only organic food? The guilt continued to niggle away, until Brookfield announced that it had opted out of the Scolarest contract and was changing its menu radically.

Escaping the contract followed two years of failed negotiations. The revolution began when a group of parents and governors formed a School Nutrition Action Group (SNAG) after complaints about lunches. The group's members came in to sample the menu. "Frankly I was horrified," says Brookfield governor Daphne Tagg. "No fresh ingredients were used in the cooked dishes, meals were prepared two hours in advance, and there was no system to encourage children to eat enough protein, carbohydrates, fruit or vegetables. We argued that changing the food could improve behaviour, concentration and possibly even attainment."

The major worry was not the oft-cited fear of obesity, but how little the children were eating. "There was not enough edible food. You hear all this talk about nutrition, but what about the actual food? We were talking about undernourishment," says Tagg, a mother of two. "You would see one child with a spoonful of rice and some ice cream. No way were these meals balanced. The governors felt that poor food was a failure of the school's duty of care. It was a moral issue."

Under pressure, Scolarest, which caters for 1,300 schools in England, agreed to introduce a new menu in February 2004 that included fresh salad and yoghurt. But it refused to include fresh vegetables or unprocessed meat or fish, saying that this would be "logistically difficult" and too expensive.

Georgina Parkes, Scolarest's communications manager, says that there is new pressure on school caterers to offer more fresh produce. But she claims that this costs more, and says that councils are receiving no extra central funding. The Government gives councils an average of 45p per primary school pupil to spend on ingredients, and Scolarest claims it needs 70p to provide healthier dishes. Yet Brookfield is now charging pupils just 5p extra per meal - bringing the cost of each lunch to £1.50. According to Tagg, council officials have refused to question the assumption that fresh ingredients are too costly.

Other local primary schools are hardly flocking to follow Brookfield's example, though. A council spokesperson says that all other Camden schools - bar one - are happy with the current arrangements, adding: "We are open about the fact that there were problems, but last year we worked with Scolarest to improve the situation and it will continue to improve."

Brookfield is now negotiating with the council for basic equipment with which to cook the fresh food. Its kitchen has not been used for cooking for a long time - there were no large saucepans and not a single vegetable peeler. Like Jamie Oliver, the school wants to ensure that the children eat the new dishes. As an incentive, teachers were asked to eat with their class in exchange for a subsidised meal. On the first day the children were given stickers if they tried something new.

Last week the school celebrated healthy living week and parents were invited to join their child for lunch to see how dinners have changed. The korma proves nice enough, but from the dreamy expression on Ruby's face I should have chosen the spaghetti. The food is well cooked, and tastes fresh. The peas are a delight. The fruit salad is crisp and crunchy.

Everywhere children are eating fruit - Lilha is popping grapes into her mouth, a boy next to her wants more pineapple. Of course, not everyone likes the food. One of the parents has come because her daughter refuses to eat school dinners after a negative experience with a spicy tomato sauce.

"We still have some work to do," says Tagg. "The mixture of positive peer pressure and teacher encouragement works miracles. It only takes one child in line to say: 'Yuk, I'm not having that' and none of them will touch it."

Now the rule is that every child must have at least one vegetable on their plate, though they don't have to eat it. And the food has improved in other ways too - it's no longer cooked mid-morning and left to wilt.

But the school is well aware of the financial risks in opting out of the catering contract. It is facing a £27,000 cut in its catering budget this year because the school kitchen will no longer be used to prepare meals for a nearby primary. Brookfield will also have to bridge the gap between what the council pays for free dinners, and what the dinners now cost. "Other schools are watching us, waiting until the fuss dies down to see how the finances pan out," says Hillman, the headteacher.

But Tony Sanders, managing director of primary schools at Scolarest, says schools that use fresh vegetables will have to pay for an hour's extra labour per day, and meals will cost 15p more each. "Brookfield will struggle to stand alone financially. They are on the borderline of being able to make it."

But the proof of the pudding is, of course, in the eating. Ruby's organic food-loving friend Stella is so envious of those eating school lunches that, after some tough negotiations with her mother, she's allowed to eat school lunches twice a week. As Jamie Oliver would say: "Nice one."