Healthy school meals – what are you doing to help?

24 February 2010 by
Healthy school meals – what are you doing to help?

With financial support from the government due to end next year, now is the time to help out the school meals programme, or risk wasting the work that has been done in the past five years to educate the young about healthy eating. Tom Vaughan reports.

Time is running out. The short, sharp, headline-hogging post-Jamie period is coming to an end. With his 2005 campaign, Jamie Oliver put school meals squarely on the public agenda. The response? The Government pledged £280m of funding in the form of the School Lunch Grant, with the aim of increasing school meals take-up by helping to keep the price down.

However, this financial support isn't going to carry on forever. In fact, in a year's time, it will cease to exist. Without it, many local authorities will struggle to continue offering the same level of service. If ever there was a time for hospitality to help out a troubled sector of its industry, it's now. Some have already stepped up their efforts to ensure the work of the past five years on educating the young about healthy eating doesn't go to waste, and their work is listed below.

But as Michael Coaker, chairman of the Academy of Culinary Arts' Chefs Adopt a School project, puts it: "The whole country has a responsibility to educate our children, not just a small sector of the hospitality industry."

What are you doing?


It was seeing Jamie Oliver struggling to make an impact on school dinners in 2005 that proved the motivation for the Peach Pub Company to get involved with local schools, says co-founder Hamish Stoddart.

"At that time my son was six and you could see why kids were eating the wrong thing at school. Cooking resources at this school had been whittled away and there was simply not enough money to help them produce something to eat that would enthuse the kids," he says.

So Stoddart arranged for every Peach pub to link with a local primary school and designated a dish on their menu - chicken Caesar salad, to be precise - which for every one bought, 25p goes towards funding healthy eating initiatives at that school.

"They've used it to grow vegetables, build sheds, visit farms," explains Stoddart. "But often the hardest thing is getting the teachers to find time with which to think innovatively about spending it. We end up collecting the money and almost bullying the schools into spending it."

What's more, the company has started bringing kids along to its organic farm - which doubles as its head office - for a day picking, prepping and eating fresh produce.

"It's something they just don't get from their parents or at school," Stoddart continues. "Choosing the veg, pulling it out of the ground, understanding what grows when - it ends up being an inspirational day for them."


When you're catering for all ages of student, it's important to remember that each group has specific needs, says Jane Bristow, managing director of Sodexo Education.

"Whatever age you're dealing with it's about creating a partnership with the school to understand how you can work together," she adds.

The contract caterer aims to engage all the students it serves, but realises a different approach is required for each group. For primary children, who may be nervous about entering a school canteen, it has programmes offering free meals for a week. "This encourages children to come into the environment and experience it rather than it becoming a barrier," Bristow says.

It also proactively seeks to involve itself in the education process. "We very much want to work with the school," Bristow says. "Wherever we've had a partnership arrangement we've built school meal uptake. There will be many ideas from the curriculum you can link back in."

Sodexo runs breadmaking sessions where it introduces children to the ingredients. Its staff even take on storybook reading, linking books featuring food to dishes on its menu.

"The idea came from one of our members of staff and works fantastically well," Bristow explains. "For instance, we might read James and the Giant Peach and then serve peaches on the menu to tie in with it."

Starting the children young has proved to engage them early and give them a lasting positive attitude to healthy food. But in secondary schools Bristow says it is more difficult, with students responding more readily to competitions that connect to food, with attractive prizes like iPods or bikes.

Bristow adds: "It sounds like an oxymoron, but we achieved a world record for eating sustainable fish. We had a day where across all our schools fish and chips were served - all from a sustainable source - which highlighted the sustainability issue."

New technology can also help persuade children to eat healthily. Sodexo runs a cashless system whereby parents have an online account that allows them to monitor what their child is eating. "It certainly makes the children think twice about their choices," says Bristow.


In 2005, in a bid to enthuse children at client schools about healthy eating, Chartwells - the education division of Compass Group UK and Ireland - created a special role for chef Darren Tinkler, who is now the "Putting Fun Back Into Food Manager".

Tasked with travelling the country to run the group's education programme, Tinkler runs an audience participation show in schools and colleges entitled "On Your Marks! Get Set! Cook!". Based on BBC mainstay Ready, Steady, Cook!, the show gets children on stage to cook against each other under the supervision of a teacher, with the audience deciding which dish they'd like to see win.

"The idea is to get children fascinated by ingredients," says Tinkler. "To try and get them to eat ingredients they've never eaten before. And what we find is that kids get much more involved with food once they've put their own identity on it."

Tinkler runs five programmes a week across the country - including other popular exercise-led programmes - with 40 schools on a waiting list for cancellations. In fact, so popular are the programmes, Compass is looking to create another role like Tinkler's to answer demand.


If Raymond Blanc, Albert and Michel Roux and Heston Blumenthal aren't going to enthuse schoolchildren about food, no one will. Conceived 20 years ago and officially launched in 1993 in response to the reduced cooking going on at schools, Chefs Adopt a School is the Academy of Culinary Arts' long-running project to educate schoolchildren about food and a balanced diet. For 17 years, high-profile chefs such as Blanc, Blumenthal and the Roux brothers have visited schools to help children learn about ideas of nutrition, food provenance and taste.

"When teachers talk about the topic, kids don't really engage," says the project's chairman, Michael Coaker. "However, when they see a chef in whites it's much more effective, especially with the profiles of a lot of chefs these days."

However, despite two decades of planning and action, there are still obstacles in the way of what the project could achieve.

"I think schools need a more rounded approach to food," says Coaker. "We don't get involved in school dinners as it's run by often very large contract caterers. But if we're in teaching about balanced diets and healthy food, and the school doesn't have a healthy choice on in the canteen, it's a setback."

One secret is getting kids to understand the ingredients more fully, says Coaker. "If schools could have a growing patch they will be much more likely to taste vegetables, for example. If you get kids to grow carrots then you put carrots on the menu - even if it isn't the same carrots - they'll still be more likely to try them."

Relying entirely on sponsorship, and asking only for donations from participating schools, the project reaches more than 21,000 schoolchildren a year, and is also lobbying for policy change to increase the amount of cooking done at schools (see panel below).


Now in its 10th year, the FutureChef competition was created as the result of research from hospitality charity Springboard UK, which found that although young people admired celebrity chefs, few would consider a career in that field. The idea behind the competition is to encourage interest in cooking, and promote a career in the kitchen among 12 to 16-year-olds.

A decade on, the competition reaches more than 700 schools, with about 8,000 12- to 16-year-olds participating, which gives them direct experience and tutoring in cookery. Winners - like last year's victor, Luke Thomas from Wales - can enjoy work experience with leading lights such as Marcus Wareing and Heston Blumenthal plus ongoing mentoring.


Caterer is running the School Meals Matter campaign in association with the Local Authority Caterers Association to ensure the Government commits to continue funding school meals beyond March 2011, when the £280m transitional funding pledged in 2005 will cease. To add your support and help encourage the next generation to take an interest in healthy food, go online and sign our petition at

Chartwells' Darren Tinkler tours schools and colleges where he is tasked with putting the fun back into food


â- Organise a job swap, with your head chef working in the school and the head of kitchen visiting your business

â- Invite a class of older pupils to your establishment and show them around, giving them a flavour of what you do

â- Run a healthy eating competition with the school, offering a prize of a meal in your establishment

â- Help school careers teachers by offering to talk about opportunities in the hospitality sector

â- Talk to parents about the many opportunities available in catering

â- Offer work experience to secondary school pupils

â- Sponsor a school football team

â- Offer a theatre cooking spot at lunchtime, fitting in with the school's menu cycle

â- Provide a link on your website showing what you're doing alongside a link to the school's website


For the past few years, the Academy of Culinary Arts has been behind a lobbying group called FEAST, aimed at getting food education on to the curriculum at primary schools. Much of it, though, seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

"It has become clearly evident that there is no food education on the primary curriculum," explains Sara Jayne Staynes , director of the Academy of Culinary Arts.

"There's no real syllabus teaching kids about food from field to plate. We're talking to MPs and lobbying for an improvement but we end up being told that there's already stuff on the curriculum - however, what's on there isn't at all meaningful; it might involve just baking biscuits and that's all the kids will do all year."

The campaign is waiting for the next government before it tries to make a real splash, explains Staynes.

"We're told we need to wait for the general election before we can start lobbying the new government and we're looking for a campaign manager to take this on full time," she says.

Positive results in the long run, however, would have a marked effect on school dinners.

"It's a chicken and egg scenario," Staynes adds. "Kids are scared about trying new things that their parents don't eat. But Feast is about improving the understanding of food from a young age. And if they understand food, kids will be able to make more informed choices about what they eat."

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