Woman on a mission

01 June 2004
Woman on a mission

A dinner lady with a literary agent and a deal to write her own autobiography? Surely not. Well, you'd better believe it, as Jeanette Orrey has both, although no one was more surprised than her at the news that a book deal had been struck.

"When my agent rang to say a deal had been done, I had to tell her to call me back because I just couldn't believe it. I had to sit down."

In Orrey's own words, the last year has "snowballed" for the 48-year-old primary school cook from Nottinghamshire. She has become school meals policy adviser for the Soil Association, as well as running the Primary Choice organisation to advise parents and teachers about what to feed children. She has scooped three awards - from Radio 4, the Soil Association and the Observer - and appeared in many national papers. She has even dished out advice to the likes of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

Such attention is all down to Orrey starting what can safely be called a grass-roots revolution in mass catering. In 2000, when councils across the country deregulated their catering in schools, Orrey, fed up with serving bad food to children, persuaded her headmaster at St Peter's Primary School, to opt out of the council-run service.

"I felt we were being increasingly deskilled in the kitchen, and that, as a team, we were having to serve more and more processed and packet food," she says. So she went off to find out what she could source locally.

It was soon apparent that she could achieve far more successful results with food from farm shops, farmers and local butchers. Although she pays up to twice as much for ingredients as other centralised catering operations might do, she charges only 10p more than the council's £1.65 lunch fee, because she cuts out all the bureaucracy and convoluted supply chains of large firms.

But it's neither the triumph of her common-sense finance nor the accolades that really make her proud. Rather, it's the simple fact that 185 of the 200 pupils at St Peter's now take up the school lunch offer, compared with fewer than 100 previously.

So what do they eat? "Yesterday, it was a choice between spaghetti bolognese or macaroni cheese, with a bread roll or garlic bread; or a jacket potato with cheese or tuna mayonnaise and a selection of salads," she says. As a treat the children finished off their meal with a home-made chocolate chip cookie, a glass of milk or water, and fresh fruit or yogurt. There was even a choice of cheese and biscuits.

"Please don't tell me that children don't like good food," she laughs. "It's all about educating them."

Orrey says if she could get the children's attention at the age of four and teach them through to age 11, society wouldn't be so in thrall to junk food consumerism. "Bad food is here: it's in the high street. But let's allow children to make informed choices," she pleads.

If Orrey speaks with the zeal of a preacher, she also has an infectious practicality that makes one wonder how school catering was ever allowed to be done any other way. She's keen to get the children involved. When sourcing a sausage, for instance, she collected eight from local butchers and organised a tasting team from Year Six. Enthusiasm was generated, the pupils got the sausage they chose, and they loved it.

And it doesn't stop there. "For healthy eating week, we had competitions to create menus," reveals Orrey. "The two winners got a £10 book voucher and the chance to prepare their menus. We got them little chef hats and pinafores and their dishes went on the [main school] menus." She sounds as proud as if these were her own kids, and for good reason. One of the meals was sweet-and-sour chicken in a flour tortilla with stir-fried vegetables.

Although food isn't on the national curriculum (and Orrey believes the Government has to take more responsibility), she gets round this by asking the teachers to use food in maths, geography and science. The Year One pupils have even been on a farm visit. With all this activity it wouldn't be surprising if St Peter's turned into a mini-academy for the next generation of Michelin-starred chefs.

Orrey's mission has a strong social message. As a mother of three, she laments the disappearance of mealtimes and the family bonding it promotes. "We've lost two generations of children who don't know how to cook," she says. "People aren't used to being fed home-cooked food. My husband hates taking me out to dinner because I might take one taste and say, ‘This hasn't been cooked, just pinged!'"

The dining hall at St Peter's is furnished with tablecloths and proper crockery. On Wednesdays, the school invites senior citizens to come and eat with the kids. Like the parents (who can eat at the school whenever they like) these guests pay the premium price of £2.

If Orrey's impact pushes her beyond the usual jurisdiction of a dinner lady, it's down to her relentless energy. She has just returned from a trip to Essex on behalf of the Soil Association. There, because the council has pulled out of providing lunches, she has been helping nine schools set up a deal with a local organic farm in Ongar. Soon, she is off to Shropshire, then London and Wakefield.

But what would she be doing if she wasn't about to start writing a book? "I'd still be here in East Bridgford," she answers. "I never set out to do any of this. I just set out to feed the kids good food."

Orrey's advice to school caterers who want to go it alone

  • Look at your school and at what you could serve, and take a chance.

  • First, get the children to eat fruit and then stop them bringing in chocolate and crisps. When lunchtime comes you want the kids to be hungry.

  • Change has to be gradual. At St Peter's, junk food remained on the menu for three days a week, to wean the kids off it, then two days, then one, until they had switched completely. "Kids forget they have teeth because they don't have to chew processed foods," says Orrey.

  • Have treat days, with dishes such as home-made chips and burgers. "There's nothing wrong with burgers, as long as you know exactly what's in them," she says.

  • No school can afford to make a deficit. Orrey says she needs 115 out of 200 pupils to make the service viable. "But we've never been anywhere near as low as that. We also make sandwiches for the Post Office. Diversifying can help to reduce costs," she adds.

  • Remember the health and safety issues. "You'll have sole responsibility for the safety of the kids. You could kill a child, so you have to get it right," says Orrey.

  • Finally, Orrey's motto: "Know what's possible, do what's realistic."

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