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Cards reward the right diet;School management;Briefing

THEY like their food at Torquay Boys' Grammar School. Even sixth-formers, who are allowed off-site at lunchtime, prefer to stay for school dinners.

A quick glance at the menu confirms why. This term there's tuna with onions, mushrooms and garlic dressed on pasta. There's lemon chicken with bean shoots served on rice. Or how about leg of pork marinated in pineapple and ginger, not to mention a whole range of mouth-watering desserts to follow?

If you don't fancy this pound;1.25 set-meal, there are also hot snacks: soup of the day, quiche and garnish and fresh baguettes alongside the more traditional fare of burgers and chips.

The school doesn't just employ a cook. The contracted catering team is led by a trained chef. In the dining room there's a restaurant atmosphere, with boards displaying the day's specials.

The Devon school is a beacon school with some 1,000 pupils and was recently praised by inspectors for its commitment to healthy eating.

It has a food-policy statement and the curriculum is used to reinforce messages about food and nutrition. In geography, for example, students are introduced to foods from different cultures. And in maths they have been researching eating habits and spending. There's a cookery club, visits to the catering department of a local further education college, and links are being forged with local supermarkets.

The school piloted the use of "smart cards" to replace dinner money. From the start of this term, students have been able to win supermarket-style bonus points for choosing healthy meals. Points are automatically added to their cards; when they notch up 1,000 points they win a WH Smith gift voucher.

The health drive dates back to 1993 when Torquay Boys' Grammar became grant-maintained with a delegated budget to include catering.

Pupils began to question the quality of food through the School Council. SNAG - the School Nutrition Action Group - was set up, made up of students, parents, governors and staff to act as a pressure group in the school. This body keeps the pot boiling on issues such as genetically-modified food, and reintroducing beef , while also making sure that the healthy eating message promoted in the canteen percolates through to lessons.

The school has just won the Local Authority Catering Association award for the second consecutive year. It holds seminars to share its good practice with other schools.

"There's always something healthy on the menu,"said Peter Hewitt, the deputy head.

"It's as healthy and balanced as you can get without being a lettuce leaf and carrot type approach.

"That's the important thing. Other schools take away chips on some days. We don't do that. The choices are always there, but we are trying to encourage the pupils to make sensible choices."

Joe Harvey, director of the charity Health Education Trust, says Torquay Grammar's approach is still the exception. But budget delelegation means schools won't be able to blame caterers any more.

"It will become part of their marketing - of course we have good GCSEs, but we also care. We have an excellent food service, we're interested in the way we feed your child.

"More and more headteachers are going to realise that if they don't do anything about it, at the very worst it won't help their intake, and at the very best it will have huge benefits."

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