Prue Leith: Revolution is on my school-meals menu

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The Independent Online

Chairing a Government quango gives rise to some predictable responses: "How can you stand the bureaucracy?", "Talking-shop is it?", "You'll never achieve anything. It's just a fig-leaf," and so on.

The more informed ask: "It's one thing banning junk, but how do you get kids to eat the good stuff?", or: "Parents can't cook and they eat junk, so you're on a loser, aren't you?", or: "Head teachers have enough on their plate without this. Surely what matters is literacy and numeracy, isn't it?", or: "If dinner ladies can't cook because they've only been hired to open packets, how can they possibly cook good food?"

I have some sympathy with all these reactions to my appointment as Chair of the School Food Trust. Indeed, in the past I've resigned from a few quangos when I've realised that we were going nowhere, but I am convinced that the Government, and particularly the Department for Education and Skills, really wants to see radical change in school food and teaching.

It's not the persuasiveness of the Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, or the charm of the junior education minister, Parmjit Dhanda, that convinces me, but rather the achievements so far, and the determination, of the Trust's chief executive, Judy Hargadon, whose background is in change-management rather than in education.

So what are these achievements? They are mainly, of course, getting the recommendations of the School Meals Review Panel (set up to advise on legislation after Jamie Oliver frightened the socks off the nation) into law almost unscathed. But they are also in setting the strategy and procedures that will ensure success. It is no good exhorting parents not to hand burgers through the school fence, children to eat up their greens, head teachers to pay for cooking clubs, and caterers to buy from the small farm down the road, if they do not fundamentally believe in the concept. For change to happen, all those groups - parents, children, teachers and caterers, our four key audiences - need to want change. And to persuade those groups of the benefits to them, you need to have the answers. You need to have researched best practice - to provide answers to questions and to help those who want to do it right.

The Trust has been hard at it. We now have comprehensive guidance for every aspect of school food, (lunch-boxes, vending, water provision, menus, and dozens more) on the web. Teachers can use the trust's materials to teach primary-school children about healthy eating, while school cooks can get their menus checked by the trust's nutritionists, and so on.

But how do we get our key audience groups actively engaged in this revolution in school food?

I see the job of the School Food Trust mainly as a marketing one. We haven't got the money, or frankly, the experience (we are barely a year old) to make all the changes ourselves, but we can show those four audiences - parents, children, teachers and caterers - that there are schools out there that do things brilliantly. There are those who serve delicious healthy food, with rising school-meal revenues and rising numbers of customers; those with allotments run by a science department which teaches biology and environmental studies while the children do the sowing, tending and harvesting, and hands over to the food teacher for the cooking; those who have managed to engage the most sceptical of parents; those who stagger the day so children don't have to queue in the cafeteria; those whose caterers teach cooking in the afternoon; those who run juice and smoothie bars; those who invite parents and children to tasting sessions; and those who swear children's behaviour, health, concentration or happiness have improved as they have eaten better.

One thing is for sure. No school manages the change successfully without actively working with and gaining the commitment of all four audiences. If the head teacher is not interested, you might as well go home. If the caterer cannot be persuaded, its time for a change of caterer. If the children cannot be engaged, there is something wrong with the teaching. If the parents are hostile, it will be a much longer, more frustrating, and less successful initiative. But if the whole community sees the point, then watching the change can be the most rewarding business - academically, financially, emotionally and, of course, gastronomically.

That's our job, then. And I'm up for it.

The writer is the new school-food tsar. In January she will take the chair of the Schools Food Trust, which was set up to oversee a revolution in school catering

education@independent.co.uk

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