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Recipe for health

Good nutrition has been the mantra of Conwy's dinner ladies. And the diet has helped pupils learn more, writes Biddy Passmore

Carol Davies would like it known that the school cooks of Conwy have been serving good, nutritious food to their pupils for some years - well before the recent public fuss created by a certain under-clothed chef. The council's doughty catering manager is full of praise for her highly trained staff and fed up with the implication that all school cooks simply open packets of reconstituted rubbish.

"We kept our kitchens in schools and we source the food locally when we can," she says. "We're currently serving Welsh lamb and beef. Local fruit and vegetables too, when they're available."

Conwy has never had vending machines in the 62 primaries and one secondary run directly by the authority, she says. Some of the three foundation secondaries and the three new secondaries built under a private-finance initiative (PFI) scheme do have vending machines, but all are signed up to the authority's healthy schools scheme and are in the process of introducing healthy alternatives to crisps and fizzy drinks.

In primary schools, additives and colourings have been completely off the menu for nearly two years. The ban followed a successful project run at Ysgol Deganwy by Dewi Rowland Hughes, a senior educational psychologist with neighbouring Denbighshire. He wanted to find out if removing additives from school food and drinks and providing fruit, milk and water every day would lead to an improvement in pupils' cognition and attainment.

His theory was proved correct. After one year, of the 90 pupils aged six to eleven on the new diet, more than two-thirds showed a significant improvement in their non-verbal reasoning, half in number and a third in spelling and reading.

The mother of one six-year-old boy with a history of poor concentration reported that his bedtime had moved forward from midnight to 7pm within two months.

All primary schools adopted revised additive and colourings-free school menus in the spring of 2004. Now there are reports from teachers that children are brighter and less restless, and the take up of school dinners has stayed at 56 per cent.

"We've been encouraged by the positive response from major manufacturers who have been prepared to modify and revise ingredients and recipes to meet our requirements," says Ms Davies.

"It's been possible to create a menu for 5,000 pupils that complies with national nutritional guidelines, can be prepared within the strict financial targets and, most importantly, appeals to children."

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