Appetite for life

11th March 2011 at 00:00
The number of pupils classed as overweight or obese has dropped sharply since East Ayrshire switched to fresh, local, home-cooked food in its primary schools. Douglas Blane explains how under the new regime everyone appears to be a winner

The sumptuous spread in the lunch-hall makes us wonder if we have wandered into a restaurant instead of a school. Fresh oranges, plums, pears, kiwi fruit and luscious-looking melon slices. Crunchy shortbread, carrot and coriander soup, mince pie and mash, cheese and broccoli bake. It is hard to believe this is a primary school.

It is, in fact, Nether Robertland Primary in East Ayrshire. "Everything's home-made here," says young Christie (P3). "You see them cooking it when you walk past. You smell nice smells from the kitchen. They don't do that everywhere."

The focus of Food for Life in this authority is the primary schools, says acting head of facilities management Andrew Kennedy. "We first piloted the Soil Association scheme, which is all about fresh, local, high-quality food, in 2004. It's about educating children, not just feeding them. We want to get the message out early."

His predecessor Robin Gourlay, whose enthusiasm got this off the ground in East Ayrshire, has been seconded to the Scottish Government, so they can use his expertise, says Mr Kennedy, and they have just produced guidelines on buying food sustainably in the public sector.

The idea in East Ayrshire - and in the new government guidance - is to step back and see the big picture. Simple-minded accounting would say that fresh, local, unprocessed food is healthy and wholesome but in tough times authorities can't afford it.

"That takes a narrow view of cost and value," says Mr Kennedy. "For a start, buying locally benefits the local economy. Then there are food miles. Shorter distances travelled means less impact on roads and the environment. These wider costs are harder for people to understand."

East Ayrshire Council already has statistics to show the benefits of their enlightened approach. In the two years since it began measuring body mass index of primary pupils, it has recorded sharp falls in the numbers of children for whom these are too high for health - 22 per cent in numbers of overweight children, 30 per cent in obese pupils and 33 per cent in those classed severely obese.

"The falls are the largest anywhere in Scotland," says a council spokesman. "In 2007-08 East Ayrshire had the highest rate of severely obese pupils. It now has the second lowest."

Between well-chewed mouthfuls the children confirm that the healthy eating message has got through. Sophie (P3) is tucking into a slice of watermelon as big as her head. "I'm eating this because it's healthy," she says. "I like the taste as well."

Healthy eating has been a big thing at Nether Robertland for years, says headteacher Shauna Adams. "Curriculum for Excellence has allowed us to extend it, to make lunchtime special and to give children more responsibility."

It's a healthy-eating message that reaches the children through different channels. There are the teachers: "We have these green hands on the tables," says acting depute headteacher Fiona Mackenzie. "The wee ones hold one up if they need help cutting food or pouring a drink - or to ask if they've eaten enough and can go."

There are the lunch helpers: older pupils who volunteer to keep an eye on the wee ones, before their own lunch. "If you eat that every day you'll grow big and strong," Andrew Pitt (P7) tells a boy who says he has too much mince.

"We encourage them to eat as much as they can," Andrew says. "Older pupils helped me when I was their age. It's a nice school."

Then there are inanimate helpers: "His name is Robbie Robertland," young Christie says, pointing to a tubby teddy at the next table. "He's a bear. We take him places. There are two puppets as well - Jessie and Toffee."

Glove puppets are a great way to take the message to the youngest, says Gregor Rowley (P7), pulling on Toffee and demonstrating in a doggy voice. "Hello boys and girls. Could you eat some more for me?"

"You pretend they are alive," he explains, in his own voice again. "They think it's a friend, so they listen. Sometimes they say they don't like food without even trying. We've food here they might not get at home - lots of fruit and vegetables."

Soup can be a struggle, says Mrs Mackenzie. "Some don't believe it's soup because it has vegetables and it's not red. But the kids are trying, and many clear their soup bowls now."

Besides dogs, bears, teachers and older children, pupils at Nether Robertland - and elsewhere in East Ayrshire - get the healthy eating message from kitchen staff, says Andrew Kennedy.

"Our catering service has been part of education for 10 years. It's not a separate commercial service. That's important. It's about matching up the aims of an organisation. It inspires people to do a good job and lets them see their own value."

With 300 children to be fed, Nether Robertland lunchtimes are hectic, admits catering manager Doreen Sharp. "But I enjoy them. There is nothing more pleasurable than watching kids sitting down and eating food you have cooked for them. I get a big kick out of that."

Using local produce adds to the pleasure, she says. "It's much higher quality. You are not cooking beef for hours trying to soften it. You can talk direct to suppliers. We had mince recently that had much stronger flavour, so I phoned up. The butcher told me it's because they have brought the animals inside now and are feeding them cattle-cake."

The big-picture approach East Ayrshire takes to health and well-being is reflected in learning and teaching, and is integral to the new curriculum, says Shauna Adams. "It's embedded and the children absorb it. We are working towards our third green flag. Young pupils stand up at assembly and tell the whole school about the connections."

Maria (P3) is a bin monitor, she says. "We put things in bins - like food waste in a different bin from plastic. The P1s get confused so you go and tell them nicely. They hold up their helping hands when they have had enough and we encourage them to eat more. They get healthy and we don't waste food. It all fits, you see."

Lunchtimes should be about more than eating food fast and getting back to lessons, says Mrs Adams. "They are social occasions. It's quality time - enjoyable experiences for children and adults. We aim to make the most of our lunchtimes."

Catering for Change: Buying Food Sustainably in the Public Sector, Food for Life:


East Ayrshire has announced that it is making cuts to its school meals, ending universal free meals to Primary 1s, and stepping back from gold to bronze Food for Life membership.

"It's about detail rather than principle," says acting head of facilities management Andrew Kennedy. "The key principles remain - fresh, high- quality food, locally sourced and cooked at the school, as well as the investment in our staff to link it all to children's education. We aim to retain all that."

The major part of the pound;60,000-a-year savings will come from not buying organic for milk and dry goods, such as rice and pasta, he says. "In the longer term, savings can be made if authorities work together to source produce. In East Ayrshire we still believe that fresh, local, high-quality food is the way to go for school meals."


If it's morning break at Kirkstyle Primary it must be toast time. "You can also get pancakes, muffins and fruit juice," says Courtney Baillie (P7). "I usually have toast because if you miss breakfast, toast feels like breakfast."

There is a wide choice, says Katelyn Mcleod (P7). "You can have brown or white toast, fruit pots, milk shakes, milk or juice."

East Ayrshire's catering service doesn't only do lunches, explains Kirkstyle's headteacher Diane McKinnon. "It also provides healthy food at morning break. It's a tuck-shop without crisps and sweets. Some of our children come to school with no breakfast, so this is their first meal of the day - although in winter we run a breakfast club too."

Curriculum for Excellence gave a big impetus to health and well-being at Kirkstyle, says Mrs McKinnon. "We have been integrating it into the curriculum, through initiatives we kickstart during health week each February.

"Last year we got the Cooking Bus in, and had children going out to prepare and cook food and take it home. That was great. We have sent a member of staff out for nutrition training, and turned the materials she brought back into a programme for every stage.

The P7s are comparing meals during rationing with meals today, she says, and the P4s are doing Field to Plate, an interdisciplinary topic where they follow the food from its source.

"They study lunches from the dinner-hall to see where they have come from. They go on virtual farm tours."

Now in its third year, health week at Kirkstyle targets different themes, based on analysis by the teachers of what's being done in class and where the gaps are, says Mrs McKinnon.

"So the first year we looked at emotional well-being. Last year we did social education. This year it's physical education, linking to what we have been doing with nutrition."

It's a link the pupils eating tuck-shop toast are well aware of. Every one of a group of six P7 girls does some kind of exercise, they say. They have learnt about calories in food and the connection with health and weight.

"I sometimes enjoy non-healthy snacks," Courtney admits. "But if I eat them I do have a wee concern."

"You can read on the back how much fat and salt is in them," says Katelyn. "We should eat two portions of fruits and three of vegetables a day."

All six enjoy gym at Kirkstyle. "We do different stations, like skipping, running, step-ups, for three minutes each," says Chloe Lennon. The PE teacher puts in jokes. He makes it fun."

Headteachers have to be resourceful and see the big picture nowadays, says Mrs McKinnon. "If we want our children to learn through different experiences, we need to go looking for opportunities. "We have a local family eating-place coming in to set all our stages a challenge during health week. The winner will go on their menu for a month.

"It all helps. It really lets the children see where healthy eating fits in the wider world."

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