It's lean and it's green: it's venison

By happy chance, part of Highland pupils' healthy diet is also helping to control a pest that damages wildlife and endangers people.

Venison burgers are part of the dietary revolution in the region's schools.

It's healthy and it helps the environment. Deer have been blamed for serious overgrazing of moorland, which causes erosion and loss of habitat.

The animals are also becoming a danger to road users. As well as being plentiful and cheap, the meat is lean and has less fat than beef.

Muirtown Primary P7 pupil Liam Laycock has no qualms about tucking into the emotively nicknamed "Bambi burger".

"It's a bit chewy, but it tastes nice and it doesn't bother me that it's venison," he says. His pal Struan Milne says: "I wouldn't eat a normal burger, but I'd eat these again."

Norma Murray, Highland Council's catering manager, says: "We reached the Hungry for Success standards set by the Executive long before the deadlines. A computer program tells us if our menus meet the nutritional standards and have the right amount of carbohydrates, protein, fats, minerals and vitamins. The amount of salt in food that comes already prepared is causing concern, but we are working with manufacturers to lower salt and sugar content."

She points out that venison is cheaper than it has ever been. "We get the venison from our meat supplier Munro's in Dingwall and their sale of venison has increased considerably," she says. "They also supply a range of other burgers guaranteed to contain 100 per cent top quality meat. There might be some emotional reluctance from some people, given the Bambi image, but demand is rising steadily."

Healthy options include fruit and vegetables, salads and healthy snacks.

Fish usually has a high "yuck" factor with youngsters, but Highland, with a wealth of fresh fish on its doorstep, is breaking barriers down here too.

"We find tasty recipes and consult pupils in tasting sessions," says Ms Murray. "That approach worked well when we introduced a range of fresh fruit and we are confident we can build up a taste for fish. We've put a lot of time and effort into staff training to give them nutritional knowledge as well as the cooking and presentational skills."

The number of pupils taking school dinners has risen by 2 per cent since the healthy options were introduced. "Pupils are willing to try new food and new tastes and they come back for more," says Janice Stewart, the area catering officer. "We invite parents to have school lunches to see what their children are being offered and we find that as children move into secondary school, their eating habits have changed and they automatically go for the healthier options."

Head of Muirtown Primary Fiona Neilson says the healthy eating strategy is working.

"It helps that the unhealthy options have gone," she says. "At break, pupils are offered toast or fruit and fruit juice, water or milk. Crisps and fizzy drinks are not available.

"We also had players and staff from Ross County Football Club in the classrooms teaching children about balanced diets. Of course, children listened to them more than they listen to us. The only thing we lack is more space in our canteen. Space is tight and it's very noisy.

"We would like to make the environment more relaxed, and make eating a more enjoyable experience for pupils."

Of Highland's 213 schools, 130 are production kitchens that cook for themselves and surrounding schools. Some schools are so small that they have no kitchen or dining facilities.

The council and NHS Highland have been co-operating for some time on a programme called Your Choice to Healthy Living, and the Executive's Hungry for Success policy simply reinforced much of what the two agencies had been doing. And Highland is now taking part in the Food for Life project. It aims for 30 per cent of food provided to be organic and for 50 per cent of the food to be sourced locally. Organisers also want 75 per cent of food to be unprocessed when it enters the canteen kitchens.

Ms Murray says: "We had a seminar last month to tell local crofters, farmers and other suppliers about the targets and the opportunities of a pound;2 million market on their doorstep. They might have to form co-operatives to ensure continuity of supply and compliance with health and food safety rules, but there is potential for them to make money and jobs.

"Eventually, we could have fields of vegetables grown especially for school meals. They already produce a wide range of vegetables such as onions, potatoes, carrots, turnips, cabbages and so on, as well as eggs and meat, and we are hoping to have as much local produce as possible on the menu this year."

The culinary revolution in schools will be included in the Year of Highland Culture 2007, a consolation prize for the fact that the area missed out on the accolade of European Capital of Culture 2008.

Ms Murray says: "The emphasis on the area's culture and heritage will allow us to reintroduce some of the traditional dishes prepared in the Highlands and get communities involved with their schools. That might mean grannies and grandads coming into school to demonstrate how they are prepared. We could lose part of our food culture if it is not passed on to our young people.

"We are also keen to get children out on to farms in the community so they can learn where the food comes from. One suggestion is to set up school or community gardens where this could be done on a small scale, and again the experience of older people would be a great help."

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