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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 September 2005, 11:09 GMT 12:09 UK
Positive response to new menus
By Alison Smith
BBC News education reporter

School meal
There will be less processed food on Camden's school meal menus
Head teacher Valerie Robertson said she "kicked up a stink" about the poor quality of meals in her primary school.

"I told the council I would not feed the food we had in this school to my dog," she said.

"I was disturbed at the quality of meals, and critical of the local education authority and the meal provider, Scolarest."

During almost two years Camden education authority consulted parents, teaching staff and outside experts to gather their views on how school meals could be improved.

It tested new menus in seven schools, including Ms Robertson's St Eugene de Mazenod, before the summer holidays this year, and the council says they were so popular that they are being introduced into all its schools from September.

Satisfaction

After a little encouragement, the pupils at St Eugene de Mazenod took to the new regime of salads, fresh fruit, meat and fish, Ms Robertson said.

Synthetic potato, Turkey Twizzlers and chicken nuggets are some of the "rubbish" no longer on the menu, the head teacher said. But now the children "can't get enough salad".

"And they take the large portions of fruit we offer.

"I made it my business to be in the hall serving the new food myself. It was the only way to know what was there," Ms Robertson said.

No longer on the menu
Turkey Twizzlers
Chicken nuggets
Fish stars
Frozen vegetables
Synthetic potato
The head also began taking fresh food into assemblies and was surprised to find some pupils could not recognise a cauliflower.

When the new menus were first introduced, children tentatively took salad and fruit only in small portions, but were now enjoying it, she added.

The school also organised its own tasting sessions for parents, and surveyed their views on school meals.

Cost was not generally an issue for them, Ms Robertson found.

"Some said they would pay whatever it took to have better meals," she said.

Meals at the school cost 1.50, which includes a 5p increase planned in advance of the new menus.

"My kitchen staff work one hour extra per day to prepare the meals, and my chef, who has worked here for 25 years, now goes home tired, but with satisfaction."

Not appetising

Her school has just 194 pupils, 160 of whom are taking school meals this term, evidence that the new menus are appealing to pupils and parents.

The London borough of Camden also surveyed the views of 42 head teachers, 260 parents and 525 pupils on school meal provision before compiling its new menus.

New menu
Fresh meat
Mixed salads
Fresh fruit and fruit salads
Fresh vegetables
Real potatoes
Camden education spokesperson Jason Grimsley said the response to the trial had been excellent.

New tougher nutritional guidelines are being applied to the new menus, he said, and the amount spent on each meal is rising from 45p to 60p, with the promise that it will rise again to 70p in April.

The education secretary has said at least 50p should be spent on each meal in primary schools and 60p in secondary schools.

"Some of our schools did not have a kitchen and had to rely on meals being delivered," Mr Grimsley said.

"By the time it arrives and is given to children, it's not as appetising as it could be. Parents wanted fresh and healthy food," he added.

Camden also plans to provide a kitchen in every school which does not currently have one.

Good response

Concerns have been raised by schools elsewhere in the UK that new healthier menus are not proving popular with children, and surveys have suggested that in some places, take up of school meals has decreased.

But Camden says its new menus have proved a success.

A Scolarest spokesperson said it had introduced new menus this term which encouraged pupils to make balanced choices.

"These contain more fruit, vegetables and salads to help boost children's intake of essential vitamins and minerals, combined with reduced levels of fat, salt and sugar," she said.

"Staff also receive additional training with a strong focus on youngsters' nutritional needs and how to encourage pupils to make balanced meal choices through food presentation and counter layout."

However, despite these new measures one Camden head teacher told the BBC News website that the inconsistent quality of school meals was still causing concern, and that sometimes they were not up to scratch.

Chef Jamie Oliver
Jamie Oliver's school meals campaign has led to changes

The head, who did not want to be named, said the school was not always provided with a chef to make the new healthy meals, and that in some weeks the provision was not up to scratch.

At least one other school in the borough has chosen to withdraw from the Scolarest contract and find alternative meal providers.

But Valerie Robertson says things have changed for the better at her school.

"Now we are receiving people from other schools to see how we do things," she said.

"My kitchen staff would rather eat their meals in school this year, and so would I."




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