Case study: the healthy school meals provider

10th June 2005 at 01:00
Shropshire's "local and healthy food for schools" project came about because we were concerned about poor, junk diets and wanted to encourage healthier living and eating. Many of our schools serve farming families and we wanted to boost the local agricultural economy by sourcing food as locally as possible, in some cases from the field next door.

In the summer term last year we looked at the nutritional content of the menus in all Shropshire schools, which, quite literally, meant rummaging through kitchen cupboards and scrutinising product information from suppliers. We employed a qualified nutritionist to advise on healthier menus, which were introduced in September after discussions with teachers, parents and pupils. The basic principle is to reduce what we see as "junk": processed foods with high levels of fat, sugar and salt.

Instead we want to focus on healthier cooking methods and to increase fresh fruit and vegetables, seasonal and local produce, and non-refined carbohydrates. We have also banned food containing certain additives. Our old menus operated on a four-week rota, which meant that something such as cauliflower had to be available for the entire 39 weeks. By introducing seasonal ingredients we can use local produce at its freshest and cheapest.

Six primary schools are also piloting the Soil Association's Food for Life project, which means that as well as adopting the new menus, they use organic ingredients wherever possible and make cooked dishes and puddings from scratch.

Early feedback is encouraging, but some of the children still need convincing. Because we've cut back on popular, familiar items, such as nuggets and chips, meal uptake has not increased as much as we would like; children struggled to accept foods they didn't recognise from home. But we're taking a long-term view and believe that, given time, numbers will increase.

We've established a project group chaired by the regional development agency, Advantage West Midlands, and including members from the Soil Association and local producers, as well as Shropshire County Council. We want to try to understand the problems involved in getting local produce into the system. The wholesaler pointed out, for example, that shelf life has to be guaranteed for seven days because many schools only have one weekly delivery and don't have chill storerooms. Getting everyone together helps find solutions to potential problems such as this.

The staff in our kitchens are one of our biggest assets. They're proud of their food and are on the front line influencing the choices children make.

They can make the difference between a child choosing the burger they know they're going to like, or something healthier but a bit unusual. They formed a school cooks' group looking at menus, trialling new products and talking to parents and pupils. We organised training days with the Soil Association and a group of cooks visited St Peter's school in Nottinghamshire to discuss what Jeanette Orrey is doing there. We also offer a foundation course in basic nutrition to all cooks and assistant cooks throughout the county.

We've learnt that change must go hand in hand with educational work. So we've developed activities linked to the PSHE curriculum. We've also worked hard with parents. The dangers of junk food diets have received a lot of media attention recently and parents have been given a lot of generalised information about school meals. We want them to understand what we're trying to do differently, so that they can be confident their children are getting good food and they're getting good value.

In September this year, we're launching a new food policy. We've made a lot of progress in a short time: 95 per cent of our fresh meat is sourced from Shropshire, for example. But it's just the beginning. It's not only about changing eating habits, it's about improving quality of life for everybody.

Bill Campbell, operations manager for Shire Services, Shropshire County Council's school meals provider, was talking to Jacqueline Yallop

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