The real Hell's kitchen

A nutritious lunch for 36p? You must be joking. Most schools spend only pennies on feeding their pupils. But at what cost to our children's health? Caroline Stacey serves up the deeply unsavoury facts
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The Independent Online

The head teacher is spitting chips. And turkey twizzlers, potato waffles, fishy footballers and chicken dippers. Despite the pressure put on the caterer to introduce healthier school dinners, this term's menus look as bad as ever. No wonder half the 360 pupils bring packed lunches.

The head teacher is spitting chips. And turkey twizzlers, potato waffles, fishy footballers and chicken dippers. Despite the pressure put on the caterer to introduce healthier school dinners, this term's menus look as bad as ever. No wonder half the 360 pupils bring packed lunches.

Meanwhile, those who still eat school dinners, because they qualify for free meals or their parents are too lazy to make them a packed lunch, or still hope that things will improve - yes, I include myself here - are unlikely to eat a balanced or healthy meal.

In school dining-halls across the country, the scene is just as dismal. Fewer than half of schoolchildren eat meals provided by their school. Even many of those entitled to free lunches don't eat them. Nearly one in five primary pupils who could have free meals don't, and a quarter of eligible secondary-school children spend their own money. And it's not just a concern for the parents of children at state schools; the standard of school meals is as bad in the private sector. And there, as in the state sector, it's the Government's responsibility to set standards - and enforce them.

Currently, all schools are required to do is to offer a balanced diet that includes the five food groups. Many fail to do even that, let alone encourage children to choose sensibly from what's on offer. There's no system for checking. The amount of salt, saturated fat or sugar in food, much of it processed, is not restricted or monitored.

It's a national scandal. Obesity in children is causing alarm. The Government is committed to making schools healthier places through exercise and education (though nutrition is not a compulsory part of the curriculum), while sanctioning meals made up largely of fried food, washed down with fizzy drinks from vending machines. "School meals," says Peter Melchett of the Soil Association, the organic food and farming organisation working to change what children are fed, "can be positively dangerous to children's health."

The food children eat at school makes up about one-fifth of their annual meals. Yet, while the Government talks about longer days, breakfast clubs and healthy schools, it still isn't getting the midday meal right.

The Government may be slow to act, but the gastroscenti have already been spurred into action. Jamie Oliver, a father of two, is tackling the catering at a south London school for his latest TV series, broadcast next year. "Kids are being fed at school on 36p each a day, and it's a struggle to provide a nutritious meal on that. You have to be a pretty resourceful and creative cook. So they get rubbish - and we wonder why they can't concentrate, and why diet and food-related problems now cost the health service more than lung cancer," he said.

"You can't believe what these children are eating," agrees the chef Rose Gray of the River Cafe in London. She's setting up Cooks in Schools to offer advice, support and training to schools that want to do better. As an example, she cooked a meal of lamb shanks, penne with tomato sauce, and rice pudding with her own raspberry jam for a primary school. All for the same budget, an admittedly generous 68p per child, that this school spends on ingredients.

That's almost double what some schools spend. The average cost of ingredients is 42p - less than prisons spend on inmates' lunches. The inspired individuals and some laudable local authorities who are making a supreme effort to spend more and improve children's food simply throws into relief the appalling standard everywhere else.

"What we need is a universally acceptable service. The way it works, or doesn't, now is a desperately irresponsible attitude to public health. We are not delivering food that is nutritionally sound and attractively produced," says Joe Harvey of the Health Education Trust.

At Lethbridge Primary in Swindon, parents Pam Shipperbottom and Laura Illsley formed a company, Let's Do Lunch, and took over the school meals at the start of this term. Only 40 of the 500 pupils had been eating the dinners provided by the local-authority catering service. "It was basically rubbish," Shipperbottom says. Now, with four kitchen staff, they're feeding 200 children. They charge £1.75 a day, just as the local authority had. The ingredients (organic chicken, seasonal vegetables, unprocessed, cooked from scratch) cost 70p. "If two mums with no catering experience can put together meals like these, why can't a major company?" Shipperbottom asks. "The private caterers should concentrate on good food, but they're in it to make as much money as they can."

But local authorities and private contractors say they're not guilty. Their defence: the school-meals service has been starved of funds. Since 1994, up to £154m a year has been cut from meal budgets to fund other areas of education. And school meals aren't a money-spinner for private caterers: indeed, having pledged to keep costs down to 44p per meal to win contracts, Compass (the world's largest "food service company") has issued a warning to shareholders.

A subsidiary of Compass, Scolarest, explains: "A number of contracts with local education authorities awarded over the past two years are failing to deliver the margins we anticipated, due to increased labour costs and lower than expected throughput." What they mean is that children are bringing sandwiches rather than eating their dinners - and that's eating into profits.

Jeanette Orrery is the Soil Association's school-meals policy adviser. A former dinner lady, she has helped many schools to offer properly cooked, unprocessed meals. Why can't more schools do it? "Because of the budgets they work with," she says. "You can't blame the dinner ladies. We've had the stuffing knocked out of us."

The caterers are now turning on the councils who draw up the specifications, and on the Government. "We would like to see the Government allocate more money for school meals, as well as introduce national guidelines on the cost of ingredients for a healthy and balanced meal," says Tony Sanders, managing director for Scolarest state primaries. "This would be a fairer system that would help to ensure uniform standards across the country, improve the nutritional content of school meals, and help to prevent catering budgets being raided to subsidise other education activities. The caterer has to make a reasonable profit to drive healthier-eating programmes."

The Soil Association has joined local-authority caterers and private contractors to rally against Charles Clarke, Secretary of State for Education. "Only one body can ensure that all children have the opportunity to eat a decent meal, and that's the Government," says Peter Melchett.

A century ago, people realised that well-nourished children concentrated better. In 1906, the Liberal government introduced the first Provision of Meals Act. School meals became mandatory for every pupil in 1944. The midday meal had to provide 40 per cent of a child's daily protein requirements and at least one-third of their energy intake. The Thatcher government did away with nutritional standards in the 1980 Education Act. Twenty years later, Labour reintroduced nutritional standards, which came into effect on 1 April 2001.

Without monitoring, they have been something of a joke. Is it enough to offer meat, vegetables, grains, fruit and dairy if children don't actually eat them? And what about when the food is simply so unpalatable that the children opt out?

And now we know just how far short of the standards our school meals are falling. The "School Meals in Secondary Schools in England" report by the Food Standards Agency surveyed 79 secondary schools. Its findings were sobering. The balance of foods was not healthy. Healthy eating wasn't properly promoted. Set meals did not meet the guidelines, having too little iron, calcium and energy. Only one- quarter of head cooks had had any recent healthy-eating training. Caterers and the people who write the contracts lacked nutritional knowledge. You can see the report's conclusion coming: "The current standards failed to promote healthy food choices at lunchtime among secondary-school pupils in England."

In response, the Government's Healthy Living Blueprint in Schools has pledged to review standards in secondary schools, and promises a "more strategic approach". What this actually means as far as the meals are concerned is... not a lot. Not higher nutritional standards for school meals, anyway. Not enough money to improve the standard of ingredients. And without these, the caterers despair of ever being able to make the changes they know are needed.

The Department of Health seems to have a similar mental block. Its Food in Schools programme includes pilot schemes in 300 schools for healthier breakfasts, tuck shops, vending machines, cookery clubs and water provision. The approach "brings together all nutrition-related activities both within and outside of the formal curriculum". But there's a lunch-shaped hole - the meal is not covered by the Food in Schools programme. Why? Because, duh, school meals are covered by a nutritional standard (the one the Department for Education is reviewing).

More and more accusing fingers are pointing at Charles Clarke. Joe Harvey says: "Food and nutrition should be made a priority." It is up to the Government to design better regulations about what children are fed for lunch, monitor them and provide enough money. The Children's Food Bill, backed by 205 MPs and introduced by Debra Shipley MP, seeks to improve the standard of school meals. They want maximum levels of fat, sugar and salt, and controls on additives. They've done it in Scotland: it's mandatory and inspected.

"The Healthy Living Blueprint, published last month, sets out a comprehensive range of resources that schools can use to give children the knowledge, skills and understanding they need to lead healthy lives," says Stephen Twigg, the schools minister. "We are investing over £1m to improve school meals by revising nutritional standards for secondary schools, providing additional support for heads and governors in sourcing a healthy school-meals service, and improving training and support for catering staff in schools."

The caterers say £1m is a pittance. Scotland is spending £63m over three years to fund school-meal reforms. A review of standards is welcome, but why put secondary schools first? By the time children get there, it's much harder to change their habits. "They've started at the wrong end," says Jeanette Orrery. "There is a groundswell of change, but there is one hell of a long way to go."


Slow-roasted lamb shanks

Serves 300

60 lamb shanks

10 rosemary branches

150 garlic cloves

6 lemons

200ml extra-virgin olive oil

Sea salt

Cut lamb from bone and into pieces. Peel and crush garlic. Chop rosemary with the salt. Mix lamb with the rosemary and garlic and add the oil. Lay the lamb in one layer in flat roasting tins. Add 250ml of water to each tray. Roast in oven preheated to 180C/350F for two hours, turning pieces over from time to time.

Serve with mashed potato, and roast cherry vine tomatoes. Follow with rice pudding and raspberry jam.

Cost: 68p per child