Mark Lloyd has personal reasons for wanting to improve children's diets. Poor diet contributed to his father's second and fatal heart attack at the age of 50. And his borough of Barking & Dagenham, in east London, has a higher-than-average rate of diet-related heart disease.
When he was promoted to the post of head of Barking Abbey school three years ago, one of the first things Lloyd did was to ban fizzy drinks from vending machines. This meant that the school no longer got £5,000 in annual revenue. So what? He's not in the business of making money out of kids, he says: "As far as I'm concerned, the loss is a good investment. We're a sports college and we clearly have a responsibility to educate children about healthy living."
In 1997 Barking Abbey was awarded status as a specialist sports college, along with a grant of £2.1m from the National Lottery fund and the borough to build a sports hall, gymnasium and fitness room. In 1999 the Government's chief inspector said that Barking Abbey, attended by 1,650 pupils at two sites, was one of the most improved schools in the country. But, according to Lloyd, the catering had not kept pace with the school's new emphasis on fitness.
The service, provided by Barking & Dagenham Council, was attracting complaints from students, staff and governors. Instead of a complete meal, the pick-and-mix cafeteria meant that children often chose a doughnut, a packet of crisps, a fizzy drink and a fat-filled sausage roll. Smiley-faced processed potatoes in a bag with ketchup were one of the most popular choices.
In his quest for better, fresher food, Lloyd tried to opt out of the council-run service. He got various quotes from private contractors, but the council said it could match anything a contractor offered and would guarantee the same quality of service. And it brought in Ruth Watts, one of its most experienced cooks, who had worked in the borough's school kitchens for 15 years. However, after 18 months, the council admitted it couldn't provide the level of service it had agreed. This April, Lloyd decided to go it alone again.
Watts, who has stayed at Barking Abbey, was voted 1997's Local Authority Caterers Association school cook of the year. Winning that accolade, and becoming a grandmother, inspired an interest in organic food. She refers to processed food as "wind-up food" because of its ability to make children hyperactive and irritable, and is determined that her grandson eats well.
She says that the council's catering department has not been responsive to change: "I told them ‘the headmaster wants organic potatoes' and I was still asking a year later."
One morning last summer, she was strolling around a farmer's market in Wanstead, east London. She stopped at one stall and got chatting with Gary Stokes of Ashlyns, an organic farm in Ongar, Essex. Would he be interested in selling potatoes to the school? Watts came away with a deal for organic jacket potatoes at 18p each, 2p cheaper than her conventional supplier.
Since then, Ashlyns has supplied not only spuds but lettuce, beetroot, broccoli, cucumber, leeks, carrots and cabbage to the school.
But, despite the cheaper price, the council wasn't happy with Watts's display of initiative. "There was I, thinking I was doing my job well, but it wasn't looked on favourably," she says. "It was seen as rocking the boat."
Lloyd is more vehement: "The council said it was too uneconomic to do away with junk and processed food, because that's where they made all their profit - by buying crap food at very low prices and selling it on."
He decided that enough was enough. According to him, though, the council did not support Barking Abbey's decision to arrange its own catering. When a school takes its catering in-house, responsibility for insurance, health and safety, and guaranteeing the pay and conditions of catering staff passes from the council to the head teacher - Lloyd claims that the council made this process more difficult than it had to be.
In response, the council says that it is disappointed by Lloyd's comments, adding that it still views its relationship with Barking Abbey as a partnership. The council is looking on the new arrangements as a one-year pilot. Lloyd is now the catering staff's line manager; the council inspects the kitchens, and most of the school's suppliers remain the same, except for Ashlyns Farm.
Because the school wants to put more money into the service, it has a target to spend 65p on ingredients per meal, instead of the current 55p, while keeping within its budget. The idea is to subsidise pupils' meals by catering for the wider community. Nearly every weekend, the main school hall is hired out for weddings attended by as many as 1,500 guests. Lloyd sees the weddings as a potential market for catering revenue.
A weekly lunch club for the elderly, including tea dances, is also planned. The school building is open from 6am to 10pm, hosting activities such as sporting events and children's parties that require catering - which could generate extra revenue to plough back into the service (the kitchen is in urgent need of an industrial dishwasher).
Watts is gradually reducing the number of processed foods that are served in the school dining hall. The school is not shouting about the introduction of organic food because it's not something the children need to know. On the Friday of our visit, fish and chips were on the menu, with an alternative of breast of chicken, tomato and mushroom sauce, with rice and salad. Chips are now served only once a week. Since Watts joined two years ago, uptake of meals has risen by about 25%, and many sixth-formers have returned to the dining room.
Further afield, it looks as though more schools intend to opt out of a centralised council-run service. Councils in Essex and Brent, north London, have pulled out of arranging school meals, leaving individual schools to set up deals with contractors, or to take the service in-house.
Barking Abbey is the first school that Ashlyns Farm has supplied, but a deal with nine Essex primary schools is also on the cards. School cook and policy adviser for the Soil Association Jeanette Orrey has accompanied Stokes to speak to the head teachers and set up the contract.
Unlike Lloyd, for whom greater control of catering has been hard won, head teachers in Essex have been up in arms about having to arrange their own catering. For Stokes, however, it couldn't have happened at a better time. With some 350 primary schools in the county left to either set up deals with a contractor or take their service in-house, Stokes has a large potential market on his doorstep.
Barking Abbey's story shows that, although schools have the right to arrange their own catering, going independent is not easy without the full co-operation of the local authority. It takes determination from everyone involved to achieve a common goal of improvement, as what constitutes the best way ahead can be open to dispute.
At Barking Abbey, Lloyd and Watts recognise that change has to be gradual but they have plenty of add-on ideas of educational benefit (see panel). They also know that they can't afford to make a deficit, hence the expansion of the service to the community. That's also why, occasionally, they still serve old favourites such as fish and chips.
Ruth Watts's first-year objectives - Reach a target of about 650 meal purchases per day in the upper school (1,200 pupils).
- Increase expenditure on ingredients from 55p to 60p per meal but stay within budget.
- Organic and traceable foods to be used where affordable.
- The number of processed foods to be gradually lowered.
- Three-year plan
- Introduce china plates and tablecloths for all.
- Increase expenditure on ingredients as much as possible within budget.
- Encourage teachers to eat with students during the summer term by offering free lunch.
- Free breakfast toast for lower-school students, monitored for effects on attendance, behaviour and concentration.
- Weekly OAPs' lunch club, organised and cooked by students.
- Educational visits to Ashlyns Farm for lower school. Invitation extended to neighbouring primary schools.
- Organic fruit and vegetable garden for lower school.
- Fund-raising dinner for kitchen equipment, including guest speakers.
- Parents' and friends' restaurant run by students.
Ashlyns Farm Gary Stokes of Ashlyns Farm in Ongar, Essex, has zealously embarked on a mission to "dispel the myth" that organic food is too pricey for schools.
Sitting at a bench with fields of cows, pigs and waving wheat behind us, it's hard to believe we are just half-an-hour from London. Stokes tells me about his school project: "We're going in at the cheapest prices now - non-profit making - to make a point that it is affordable and, then, with more schools on board, the more acres we grow, the more it becomes cost-effective."
Ashlyns Farm is a commercial enterprise. Its customers include supermarket chain Waitrose, it runs a delivery service of boxes of fruit and vegetables, and it has a shop where visitors can buy lunch. It also hosts school visits.
Stokes says that he isn't bothered about making money from schools, for now at least, because he sees the excitement that children experience at the farm as an effective marketing tool.
Besides, any new business needs reinvestment. One immediate aim is to buy preparation machines that can chop and peel fruit and vegetables, in order to provide a less labour-intensive product to school staff.
Barking Abbey School
Sandringham Road, Barking, Essex IG11 9AG
Ruth Watts, catering manager: 020 8270 4100
Mark Lloyd, head: 020 8270 4100