What a move this turned out to be. Over the years our skills were devalued and our hours cut. We lost our sense of worth. Pre-prepared vegetables and potatoes (in a liquid to retain their colour) were standard to save time.
Was it any wonder we felt demoralised?
Then, in April 2000, I had the chance to "go it alone" at St Peter's when the school took control of its own meals service, thanks to the support and vision of the headteacher, David Maddison, governors and parents. The past three years have been a challenge and I have pushed my superb staff to the limit. But it has been extremely rewarding.
So, what have we done? We are cooking from raw ingredients again, but the major difference is that we are sourcing local produce and using organic where possible within the restrictions of a very tight budget - we still charge the same for our meals as the rest of the county.
Quality, delivery, cost and continuity are all key. The meat, which I buy from a local farm shop, travels no more than 15 to 20 miles from farm to slaughter. I know the farmers' names, and my head has joked that I know the animals by name, too. Milk, vegetables and potatoes also come from local producers. What do the children think? I talk to them about their likes and dislikes and explain to them the limits within which I have to work.
But we are not killjoys. We have chips once a week and good quality chicken burgers and fish fingers occasionally to balance the books. A typical day's menu could be lasagne, macaroni cheese, fresh bread, broccoli and carrots followed by fresh fruit salad or yoghurt. We have a roast on a Wednesday with fresh vegetables, followed by apple and blackberry crumble and custard. This is the day senior citizens come for lunch - part of the citizenship curriculum. Almost 80 per cent of the 200 children on roll stay for lunch. They take home a menu for the next week on a Friday so parents can see what they are having.
All this has brought unexpected success, including a commendation in a British Meat competition, a Clean Food award and a Soil Association organic food award. I've also been involved with a feature in the Daily Mail's You magazine and have been interviewed on Radio 4's The Food Programme. Now I'm writing for The TES. Me, a dinner lady.
But our achievements have been made as a whole school, a community of like-minded staff who want the best for all our children. We hope that by encouragement and good food education at primary level the children will continue with healthy eating at secondary level and into adult life.
We have also formed a new company called Primary Choice, which will fund me to speak to other schools about what has been achieved at St Peter's; about how they can take on their school meals system or go to their education catering department and see what changes are possible.
Jeanette Orrey is catering manager at St Peter's primary, East Bridgford, Notts. For more information on Primary Choice, go to www.primarychoice.co.uk or email: email@example.com