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Last Updated: Monday, 6 October, 2003, 13:10 GMT 14:10 UK
Children welcome fresh food lunches
Having criticised the state of primary school meals, the Soil Association cites examples of schools trying to provide healthier food based on fresh local ingredients.

One of the pioneers is St Peter's CofE Primary School in East Bridgeford, Nottingham.

In 2000 the government gave primary schools freedom from the local authority over the meals they provided, if they wished.

St Peter's catering manager Jeanette Orrey was up for it and discovered that the school had some buying clout with local farms.

'Discerning'

Sourcing fresh food locally let her begin to change the menus, taking the children with her by getting them to taste and comment on recipes.

She said they were "enthusiastic and discerning young critics who were genuinely interested once we gave them a chance to get involved".

The head teacher, David Maddison, said there used to be 88 children out of 220 taking school lunches, now it is more than 150.

The school spends between 60 and 70 pence per head each day on ingredients - about twice the national average - but keeps the daily meal price identical to other Nottinghamshire schools, at 1.70.

Ms Orrey said she could do this - and give her staff more reliable hours and better pay - "because my purchasing decisions don't incur the cost of managers, administrators, their secretaries and the odd chief executive".

It did mean more work, but the new arrangements were a lot more satisfying.

Mr Maddison said part of the success of the policy with the children was to give them a mixed menu.

This week there is spaghetti bolognaise with local lamb, macaroni cheese with organic pasta, and a jacket potato and salad bar every day as well as yoghurt, fresh fruit and cheese and biscuits.

But there are also fish cakes, sausage rolls, chips and chocolate doughnuts.

"We came up with a way of doing it which balanced ordinary suppliers with locally-sourced food and organic ingredients. We weren't pushing any particular agenda," he said.

"We have got five year olds that will gladly tuck into a plate of broccoli - we are beginning to create a new culture in that sense, not rejecting things with your eyes before you have tried them with your mouth."

Profits have been reinvested. Plastic "flight tray" style plates have been replaced with real white china and wipe-clean PVC table cloths, for example.

And far from being a distraction from the core business of educating children, it was part of the school's philosophy of "being the best we can be".

"Putting healthy eating into that makes every sense."

Sameness

But St Peter's is the exception.

For its lengthy report on what it says is wrong with primary school lunches, the Soil Association collected menu items from a number of schools in England earlier this year.

They came from three inner London boroughs and the counties of Devon, Hampshire and Nottinghamshire, but it regards them as entirely typical.

Four things stood out:

  • The same named dishes cropped up repeatedly in several areas
  • There was little if any variation in the basic menu structure or the frequency with which particular dishes were served.
  • Culturally familiar food for ethnic minority children was almost entirely absent, regardless of the mix of children in the schools
  • None of the summer term menus showed any seasonal elements such as summer fruit, courgettes or new potatoes.
The association says this is just what you would expect with food coming through centralised supply systems serving large areas if not the whole country.

Main courses

Fish
All processed, "shaped" and coated either in butter, crumbs or batter. Most contained "dematerialised" or minced fish and cheap fillers.

Turkey
All turkey meat - served at least once a week and in some places every second day - was processed, often also shaped/coated. The association says a substantial portion of the ingredients may be poor quality mechanically recovered meat.

Chicken
Also served at least once a week in most areas, almost always in some highly processed format that "raises concern about the meat and additive content".

Lamb
Lamb was on average served twice a week in some form, most often in dishes that prior to BSE might have featured beef. "Limited interviews with kitchen staff indicated that most of this meat arrives in a minced format with no indication of its origin."

Pork
Pork appeared once or twice a week, largely in combination with poultry or lamb. Less common was ham or bacon. The association says in light of concern about the quality of school sausages, much of what is being called pork may in fact be just emulsified flare fat with some jowl.

Vegetarians

There was a heavy reliance on cheese dishes such as cauliflower cheese, cheese and egg roll, cheese and potato pie. Most common alternatives were eggs (for example, omelettes), "veggie nuggets" and "puffs". Vegetable curry and risotto got "a passing reference in two places" but the use of textured vegetable protein was very limited.

Vegetables/salads

Baked beans were always served at least once and often twice a week - as often as peas, sweetcorn and sliced green beans combined. Broccoli appeared not more than once a fortnight, often with cauliflower. Kitchen staff suggested most vegetables came frozen - except for salad, but in schools serving mixed salad every day this often also came prepared and "anything but fully fresh". Root vegetables were still commonly "fresh" - which often meant ready peeled in bags "dosed with preservatives".

Carbohydrates (bread, pasta, potato and rice)

Chips now rarely served more than once a week but smiles/waffles, saute, roast and "buttered" boiled potatoes - "all forms of starch cooked in fat" - appeared to the maximum permitted, which is three times a week under current standards. Some schools exceeded this, the association says, especially with garlic bread. "This may not be classed as a starchy food 'cooked' in fat ... but it often comes fully laden anyhow." In some places white rice or pasta were served every day, but not in others and rarely if ever together.

Desserts

Some schools offered a piece of fresh fruit, but not all could afford this every day. Cooked fruit still came almost exclusively out of a tin. Fresh fruit salad was rare - on average no more than once a fortnight and "almost always as an alternative to a tempting sticky pudding (that cost less to serve)".

Low fat yoghurts were a widespread "healthy" option, but the association says there are no controls on their sugar, colouring, flavouring, starch and artificial sweetener content. Many were long life rather than fresh, and "full of additives".

Many schools also offered ice cream or flavoured milk and biscuits. The association says these sound harmless enough but there are no regulations "to ensure they are of a decent quality and contain anything better than dematerialised fruit and artificial colourings and/or flavours".




SEE ALSO:
School lunches 'cheap muck'
06 Oct 03  |  Education


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