More carrots anyone?

Charles Clarke wants to encourage children to eat proper meals rather than snack on crisps and chocolate. Steve McCormack visits a school that is showing the way
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The Independent Online

Have education ministers, in their drive to improve the health of school children, bitten off more than they can chew? In the weeks since Charles Clarke turned up at a London comprehensive to launch the Government's new drive centred on improving pupils' diet, he must have become more and more aware of the odds stacked against him.

Have education ministers, in their drive to improve the health of school children, bitten off more than they can chew? In the weeks since Charles Clarke turned up at a London comprehensive to launch the Government's new drive centred on improving pupils' diet, he must have become more and more aware of the odds stacked against him.

Only last week, a survey by the Soil Association showed that children eating typicalprimary school meals over five days would consume 40 per cent more fat, 28 per cent more suturated fat and 20 per cent more sugar than recommended.

And the glossy document sent out to schools by the Department for Education and Skills, optimistically titled a Healthy Living Blueprint for Schools, was put together with the help of the Department of Health, where statistics recently exposed the alarming rise in childhood and teenage obesity. It's doubled since 1982. One in six teenagers is now categorised as obese and, if the trend continues, as many as half of all children will be obese by 2020.

Another key contributor to the policy launch, the Food Standards Agency, had, only days before, released details of a study into packed lunches taken to school - with equally unsettling findings. Of the 550 lunch boxes surveyed over the course of a week, a striking proportion contained predominantly fattening food. More than 70 per cent contained crisps, and there were biscuits or a chocolate bar in 60 per cent of boxes. Fewer than half the children had a piece of fruit. Overall, only one in five of the packed lunches had the nutritional elements necessary for a healthy diet.

What's more, it's a diet that most kids seem happy with. If Ministers want confirmation of the challenge they face, they need only observe children at bus stops, and walking to and from school every day, to see what they eat by choice: an intake dominated by crisps, chocolate bars and fizzy drinks.

In the face of this reality, the Government's Blueprint sets schools an imposing task. A key component of the grandiose vision outlined the Secretary of State, that all schools become "healthy schools", amounts to changing children's eating habits, by ensuring that food and drink available across the school day reinforces a healthy lifestyle message. One school that's already made great strides in persuading pupils to eat more healthily at midday is Icknield High School in Luton, where the arrival of a new chef has transformed the food. The resulting improved diet has even been cited by the head teacher as a contributory cause of improved exam results at the school.

On the day we visited, the choice pupils faced as they lined up at the canteen hatch was impressively varied. The main courses consisted of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, chicken risotto, macaroni cheese, home made pizza and cheese flan. Carbohydrate came in the form of roast and jacket potatoes and rice, with sweet and sour vegetables, baked beans and salad providing the vitamin C. The second course offered sticky toffee pudding, chocolate tart, iced buns, homemade doughnuts and fruit. The majority of the options were acceptable to children from Muslim families, a large proportion of Icknield's intake.

The brains behind this new menu belong to Dave Lucas, who trained in the kitchens at the Savoy and went on to be head chef at Brighton's Metropole Hotel. Three years ago, family reasons led him to seek a job nearer home and with easier working hours, so he applied for the position at Icknield, and has enjoyed every minute since."When I arrived here, the food they were giving the kids was terrible," he recalls.

He immediately got rid of all ready made meals and processed food, replacing them with home made dishes using locally supplied, fresh ingredients. And buying fresh does not have to mean buying expensive. Food prices fluctuate like any other raw material and he uses his knowledge and contacts to make sure he gets in quickly when there's a good deal going, and shapes his menu accordingly. "The butcher I use knows how much money I've got to spend," he explains. "I wheel and deal a bit and always look for a bargain.When I do fish and chips, I never use cod, which has become too expensive, but ling or pollock [which] tastes just as good." The pricing structure in Icknield's canteen encourages the kids to make healthy choices. For an outlay of £1.50, they get what's called a full meal, comprising a main course with three key elements - protein, carbohydrate and vegetable - plus a dessert.

Pupils who want to pick and choose a less healthy combination - say a piece of pizza plus a plate of chips, which are available only once a week - have to pay a la carte prices, which quickly mount up to more than the all-in-one deal. And they seem to have had some success. Wandering round the canteen, I saw plenty of plates full of £1.50's worth of square meal. One Year 7 boy tucking heartily into roast beef, baked potato and vegetables, with a slice of chocolate tart waiting alongside, had no doubts it represented value for money. "I really like the meals here. They're much better than we had at primary school."

But most pupils seemed to adapt their selections to conform to more predictable teenage preferences. Among the most popular combinations was the cheese flan, with roast potatoes and beans. And the fruit didn't attract many takers for second course, most children preferring the tarts, buns and doughnuts. But Lucas is unapologetic about providing predominantly sweet and stodgy puddings. "When you have children running around all day, they need sugar and carbohydrates to keep them going."

He knows his influence is limited. He reckons there's a hard core of around 30 per cent of pupils, who'll never be convinced of the virtues of fresh food, but who might occasionally be forced into choosing a healthy option. Kelly, 14, who'd just finished a plate of macaroni cheese, roast potatoes and beans, seemed a case in point. "They don't let you have just a plate of chips, which I think is wrong," she says. "You should be allowed to have what you want."

At a nearby table, a group of Year 8 boys who'd opted for a slice of cheese and tomato pizza, with a packet of crisps, bought from a separate hatch at the end of the dining room, bemoaned the fact that chips were available only once a week. "I only have a proper meal when chips are on," one explained. At the end of the hall sat the packed lunchers, their boxes revealing a mixture of homemade sandwiches, crisps, chocolate, yoghurt and bottled drinks, mostly non-fizzy. One girl told me she brought her own lunch because of the long queues for the canteen food. "You stand forever," she told me.

This is a problem by no means unique to Icknield, which deserves credit for smoothly marshalling a large chunk of its 1300 pupils through the dining hall in the space of an hour. Many secondary schools struggle with far more cramped facilities and overcrowding. Icknield's head Chris Dean is rightly proud of the progress his school has made. He salivates over the memory of one of the first meals he had from the Lucas kitchen - "a lasagne to die for" - and is convinced the increased intake of fresh food over the last couple of years has had a beneficial effect on pupils' learning. The school's GCSE results last summer reached a new high of 71 per cent at A* to C.

"The quality of food here provides energy and sustenance to the end of the day, and I have no doubt that our improved results are partially due to that." The school is building on its success, by working towards adding a formal catering specialism to its existing status as an arts college.

Lucas's expertise is being shared around the wider school system. He frequently goes to talk to groups of school chefs to explain his methods, and try to encourage his counterparts to develop the confidence to break free from the bulk ordering of ready made items and move towards locally sourced fresh ingredients.

"I'm not the Messiah," he argues, "but I do want to spread the Gospel, and there are lots of schools now coming on board."

But a nagging question remains. Even if every school in the country emulates Icknield's success, will that be enough to reverse what appears to be a deeply entrenched shift in lifestyle across broad swathes of the population?


The Government's blueprint says that schools should:

* Promote an ethos and environment that encourages a healthy lifestyle.

* Reinforce the message in the classroom. Science and food technology lessons should underline how the nutritional content of different foods contributes to health. School clubs should encourage an interest in growing and cooking fruit and vegetables.

* Ensure that healthy food and drink are available throughout the day, including breakfast clubs, tuck shops, and vending machines. Steer clear of food and drink that are high in fat, salt and sugar.

* Give advice to parents on how to prepare a healthy packed lunch.

* Make sure pupils have access to drinking water throughout the day.

* Provide high quality physical education and sport, and encourage walking and cycling to school.