Jeanette Orrey: It's time to change our children's diets

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The Independent Online

You may not have watched Jamie's School Dinners on Channel 4 last month, but you could hardly have missed the furore the programme caused. The story of Jamie Oliver's crusade to bring healthier food to the children of Greenwich prompted over a quarter of a million people to sign a petition urging the Government to increase spending on school meals and banish horrors like turkey twizzlers from the menu.

You may not have watched Jamie's School Dinners on Channel 4 last month, but you could hardly have missed the furore the programme caused. The story of Jamie Oliver's crusade to bring healthier food to the children of Greenwich prompted over a quarter of a million people to sign a petition urging the Government to increase spending on school meals and banish horrors like turkey twizzlers from the menu.

If you found yourself wishing that your own local school had been the one picked by the show for a healthy makeover, I have good news. There is already a blueprint for better school meals that does not need a celebrity chef to implement and is being successfully adopted by more and more schools, parents and local authorities. It's called Food For Life, and I know it works because it is based on the approach I took as a dinner lady when we set about changing the meals at St Peter's Primary School in Nottingham five years ago.

Food For Life was developed by the Soil Association, the charity promoting organic food and healthy eating, to enable as many schools as possible to achieve what we have achieved. It's not easy to bring about change but it's not rocket science either - it's amazing how much you can do with a little vision, a few healthier ingredients, a bit of training for kitchen staff and proper food education for the children.

At St Peter's, over 80 per cent of the children now eat school dinners, compared to under half when we started. We are spending twice as much on ingredients to help us deliver nutritious, delicious meals, yet we have not increased the amount we charge parents because of the savings we have made in buying food directly from local farmers instead of dealing with big catering companies. I now work closely with the Soil Association as school meals policy adviser, sharing my experience and ideas with schools across the country.

So what are the key ingredients in the Food For Life recipe? At least three-quarters of the food served should be freshly prepared from unprocessed ingredients. At least half should be locally sourced and 30 per cent organic. Strict nutritional standards should inform the menu, ensuring that children receive what they need in vitamins and other nutrients such as calcium and iron. And children should be encouraged to learn about food in all relevant aspects of the curriculum.

When I first started working as a school dinner lady the food was basically good, if a little boring. But over the years tight budget restrictions took over, and the food we were allowed to serve in schools began to suffer. To cut costs, packet mixes, pre-cut and pre-packed vegetables and poor-quality frozen meat became the norm.

Our salvation came in April 2000, when new legislation gave primary schools the right to opt out of the local authority catering system and do their own thing. With enthusiastic support from the head teacher, David Maddison, the kitchen staff decided to run our own dinner service.

We knew we couldn't introduce a completely healthy but alien menu overnight, so we decided to make the transformation gradual. We served the kind of food that the kids had been used to for four days and replaced that with a good-quality, healthy meal on the fifth. Little by little, we took away the processed foods and brought in the fresh. We slowly increased the salads and vegetables, used organic ingredients where possible and used lean meats in traditional recipes.

We now serve a five-day menu of homemade, fresh, local and sometimes organic dinners, with lots of choice and variety. But we're not killjoys, so occasionally we give our kids chicken burgers, chips and beans followed by iced buns, and they love it. The difference is that the chicken burgers are good quality, made from chicken breast, the chips are homemade, and the beans have reduced levels of salt and sugar. Because they are only eating this kind of food once in a while, they are still being provided with a nutritious and balanced diet.

Food has also become part of the curriculum at the school. I passionately believe that children who know about the principles of food - if these are taught in an easy and fun way, and taught early - will know about eating well, will cook and eat well in the future, and will pass on their knowledge to the next generation.

We have developed projects and activities for every year, from visiting an organic farm to designing menus and devising a healthy children's snack. Other schools can do likewise - the Soil Association has a network of over 60 organic farms that children can visit, and has produced a free curriculum pack to help teachers bring back proper food education.

I hope that what is catching on in schools will also take root at home. It's parents who buy and cook food on the whole, and it's at home that most of the healthy eating messages must be established and monitored.

I may have started a mini-revolution in schools, but if I could do the same in people's homes for family meals - re-introducing the principles of good food, good eating, good fellowship and tasty, practical recipes - I would be a very happy woman.

The Soil Association's Food For Life action pack can be downloaded free from www.soilassociation.org. Jeanette Orrey's story and a host of recipes for healthy children's food can be found in her new book, 'The Dinner Lady', published by Bantam Press (£16.99).

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